“Tell me, do you need to complain in order to perform your duties?”

“No, Sergeant Popov,” came the refrain.

“Now, I understand that a good complaining can seem to lighten the load after a long hard day of Army labor such as this,” Popov continued. “But it also sucks the morale out of everyone. Tell me, soldier, do you have a wife?”

“No, Sergeant Popov, I have not yet had the privilege.”

“Well get one! In addition to the obvious benefits, she will give you someone to complain to. Look at me! Do you think I am not full of complaints? But I can’t be voicing them to my men, now can I?”

“No, Sergeant Popov.”

“Exactly. So every time I have a complaint, I set it aside for later. Then, when the deployment ends and I return to Mrs. Popov, I complain to her, then.”

“Surely, Sergeant, that is a sure way to a divorce?”

“Nonsense! She gives as good as she gets, that woman.Do yourselves a favor, all of you, and get a ‘Popov’s Wife’ to complain to after we are done, to keep the negative chatter down. Just don’t get the wife of the actual Popov, which is me, or I will have to kill you.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“My law has kept this valley safe for ten years,” Rolf Law said. “You think you can do better, stranger?”

Bee met Law’s gaze. “If I did, I wouldn’t say so.”

“Well, that’s the first smart thing you’ve said since we started talking,” the sheriff laughed. “You hear that?” he added in a booming voice, so that all those nearby could hear. “This here stranger has just realized the value of keeping one’s mouth shut before damn fool stuff falls out of it!”

No one responded, as Law swept his eye across the onlookers, so he went on: “It’s a harsh law for a harsh land, stranger. You have a problem with it, you leave my valley. You stay here, especially now that I’ve taken the time to learn you the rules personally, you’re bound by my law. That means trial by ordeal, or the gallows, if you step out of line.”

“You don’t have to worry about me,” Bee said evenly.

“Good. I hope not. I hope this little talk has got you straightened out,” Law said. “Because you’re real close to stepping out of line, stranger. Real, real close. If I was you, I’d lay low for a bit, make sure that Rolf Law doesn’t see you while he’s still got an unfavorable impression. You hear me, stranger?”

“I hear you.”

“Good.” Law whipped his hand in a circle above his head. “Let’s move, boys! Afternoon patrol isn’t gonna walk itself.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“Bee” Hoover looked up at the bodies hanging from the gibbets. Tanned by the fierce sun, not even the circling buzzards wanted them. “Who are they?”

Tam Frederick continued to chew on the toothpick, and did not look up. “That there’s Blacklaw Hill. You obey the law, or the Hill gets you.”

Bee shuddered. “Do you know who they are?”

Taking out the toothpick, Tam flicked a mote of spittle off of it. “Well, let’s see. We got us Johnny Hammer, Addie Greenwood, and…uh… Jere Hardison, I think.”

“There’s four of them up there,” Bee said, looking up at the bodies and counting silently.

“Don’t rightly remember who the fourth is, lessin’ it’s still Bettina LaChance.”

“What did they do?” Bee said. “Murderers? Rustlers?”

“Nah,” Tam said with a solemn head-shake. “Johnny Hammer was a carpenter, but he was known to nail more wood than he needed to make cabinets. Hah! Addie Greenwood was accused of being a witch, and she want to the gallows rather than do a trial by ordeal. Jere Hardison was accused of shoplifting, but he refused to plea, so they hung him as if he was guilty. Bettina LaChance, well she was a gossip, plain and simple.”

“And the penalty for all that was…death?” said Bee. “On whose authority?”

“The law,” Tam replied. “Sheriff Rolf Law. Judge Rolf Law, too, and I think there might be a Marshal Rolf Law and a Coroner Rolf Law in there someplace too. You know what’s good for you, you mind all the laws and all the Laws.”

“And how will I know what’s punishable by death in town?” said Bee.

“Easy,” replied Tam. “Everything, unless you go through a trial by ordeal. Enjoy your visit, stranger.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

It lingered there for two weeks before anyone moved it, touched it.

A cart in the Wal-Mart side lot, heaped with groceries in bags. They were brand new, just purchased, still sealed. Potato chips, canned goods, snacks. Not the healthiest foods, maybe, but foods nonetheless.

Someone just abandoned the cart there, filled with edible, usable, food.

At first people probably thought that it was just a mistake, that the owner would come back. But then it entered a strange sort of twilight realm. The stuff was sealed, nonperishable, so it was still good. But there must have been a reason it was abandoned, right?

A couple were trying to beg for money nearby for a while, their ramshackle van parked with a sign soliciting charity. They never approached the cart, never touched it, though they were there for two days and it was on plain sight. There must have been a reason it was abandoned, right?

Maybe it was some psycho that had laced every last package with poison, to anonymously murder the unwary. They could easily have done it, in the side parking lot. No fingerprints, no witnesses.

People were clearly tempted. One of the items on top was a big bag of name, brand–premium!–potato chips, just the sort of thing to hit a snacky soft spot. There was a similarly unopened six-pack, mighty refreshing in the intense summer heat. But still, no one touched a thing. No one even moved the cart, which was taking up a whole parking space on its own.

Once it was rained on, that was the end of the mystery. Someone might be tempted by abandoned food, but not if it’s been rained on. Even if it was non-perishable and sealed, which it was. The store employees were by a day or two later, unceremoniously dumping the contents into a skip alongside the building that was meant for food waste. Whatever calories were locked inside, whatever energy was put into their manufacture for good or ill, it was now beyond human ken, beyond human stomachs, forever.

Its secrets, one might say, were taken to the grave. Of course, there must have been a reason it was abandoned, right?

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“I’m afraid,” the chair said, “that the faculty committee has no choice but to deny you tenure, Dr. Smith.”

“But why?” Smith said, arms cast wide to encompass the whole Department of Literature committee. “The guidelines say that I have to publish at least three memes, and I have published six across three different social media platforms!”

“You need to take a closer look at the tenure requirements as updated,” the chair said. “You need to publish at least three viral memes. None of your memes surpassed the 10,000-share or 100,000-view threshold as set out by the new tenure documents.”

“But two of them made it onto Know Your Meme!” cried Smith. “Surely that’s enough!”

Some murmuring from the committee, as the members whispered amongst one another. “I’m sorry, but those are provisional entries to Know Your Meme, still being researched for permanent inclusion as of this hearing,” the chair said at length. “While a verified Know Your Meme entry might be cause for leniency, in this case the committee sees none.”

Smith sagged, defeated.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Smith,” the chair said. “You’re a fantastic teacher and researcher. But a leading university like this has to remain relevant, and without faculty producing and submitting dank memes on the regs, we risk losing that relevancy.”

“But I published five books and ten articles a year,” Smith whined.

“Very impressive,” the chair said. “It will look good on your resume and CV, I’m sure. You have six months to set your affairs in order before automatic termination. Do you have anything else to add?”

Smith looked up at the chair, eyes tearing up, barely able to croak out the words: “Lol, no.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Jeremy slid the blade out, careful not to nick the ribs. The customer, who a moment earlier had been demanding to see a manager, wheezed like a faulty bellows as he fell to his knees, dropping the pack of razor blades and letting the expired coupon flutter to the ground. Having carefully chosen a remote corner near the alcohol storage, which was off-limits for Sunday sales in that town, Jeremy was sure that nothing would interfere with the customer passing on.

“Shh, it’s okay,” he said, as the man gasped quietly. “You’re going to a better place. Little things like this won’t bother you anymore.”

The knife, Mr. Happy, had come out red and wet, so Jeremy took a moment to wipe it off, revealing the jaunty grin cast into the stainless steel blade. He replaced it next to its smaller wife, Ms. Joy, in the custom sheath he’d made in the small of his back. They’d been cheese knives, once, their smiles serving as holes to help them glide through dairy without sticking. Justin had bought them on the spot when he’d seen them in that Kenosha Goodwill, since they were absolutely perfect for his purposes. Stainless, one-piece with a low risk of breaking, small enough to easily conceal, and–most importantly–aesthetically pleasing.

Whether he was slipping Mr. Happy between ribs or driving Ms. Joy betwixt cervical vertebrae, their smiles not only kept the blades from sticking, they reminded Jeremy why he did what he did. He wasn’t slipping into retail stores dressed as an employee to waylay and end customers for himself; no, sir. The motivations were wholly unselfish. He was sending them to the Better Place, where none of the things that bothered them would do so anymore. Jupiter’s second moon, Europa, was big enough for all the souls he could send there, after all.

Jeremy carefully took off his store uniform vest and folded it, before walking out the loading dock with a jaunty wave at the janitors there.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“We are…taking a break from magic,” said Opaem. “The patience of an elf is great, the patience of a sage still greater, and yet neither is infinite.”

“Speak for yourself,” Brianna said sullenly. “You’re the one whose dumb magic system doesn’t make any sense.”

“It is my honor to meet you, Chosen One,” said Moew the Master. He placed a clenched fist inside an open palm, and bowed. “Magic has its uses, but it is the art of combat that will save you if an enemy gets within stabbing range.”

Opaem wandered away, muttering angrily, striking a meditative pose near the far side of the training ground.

“He never did have a sens of humor,” Moew said. “So! The legends state that the Chosen One will be a master of all forms of combat. what would you like to start with? Perhaps my personal favorite, the gentleman of weapons, the sword?”

He drew a double-edged straight sword from a scabbard and ran it through a series of whistling sword dance moves before offering it to Brianna. “Uh, yeah,” Brianna said. “I don’t know how to do that.”

Moew gestured to a weapon rack. “Quarterstaff?”

“Looks like a whole staff to me.”

“Spear?”

Brianna shook her head. “Never used it.”

“Not even to roast food?” Moew said, flabbergasted.

“We have a thing called a microwave oven where I come from,” Brianna said. “Spearing meat over a fire is pretty rare.”

“Wouldn’t microwave radiation heat the water molecules and damage the composition and structure of the food?” Moew said.

“Maybe, but it’s quick and easy,” Brianna said. “Hey, if you know about microwaves, does that mean you have like microwave death rays?”

“What? No!” Moew said, shocked. “The power consumption and range would make any such weapon tactically useless at best. Here we are all about the sword, the bow, the spear, the saber.”

“What about…guns?” Brianna said. “I bet I could use a gun. Simple point and click interface.”

“The legions of the Dusk are too numerous,” Moew said. “A sword never runs out of bullets.”

“But a bow runs out of arrows,” Brianna said. “I see a bow over there.”

“That,” Moew said, gritting his teeth, “isn’t the point.”

“I think you just don’t like guns,” Brianna said. “They’re not as fancy and don’t make you look as cool, but I bet more guns–or like BIG guns–could kill the Dusk.”

Moew sheathed his sword. “Do you even know how to use a gun?”

“My uncle’s in the army, he does artillery. How hard could it be?”

“Perhaps we should start you with something else,” Moew sighed. In the distance, he thought he could hear old Opaem chuckling.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Airport Thrillers
Only good for reading if you’re high.

Bibles
Everybody already has one they’re pretending to read.

Children’s Books
For obvious reasons, we prefer to buy these when they are new and not sticky.

Complete Works of Shakespeare
Unless it’s a First Folio, we’re good.

Diet Books
The only weight you lost was money from your wallet.

Encyclopedias
We have computers in the library now, have you heard?

National Geographic Magazines
We know they’re cool. That’s why we already have some.

Reader’s Digest Condensed Books
Low-calorie books are less filling.

Textbooks
If they’re pre-2015, they’re too old to be useful. If they’re post-2015, they’ll just get stolen.

VHS Tapes
DVDs don’t need to be rewound.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“Argenbright Hospital,” Lincoln Andoh said. “Built 1980, closed 1990, in business a shade under ten years, now abandoned.”

“It’s guarded,” Arcelia Demme said. “24-7. They’re worried about meth-heads pulling our all the wires. Urban Xpl0r tried to get in for a YouTube video last year, spent the night in jail.”

“Wait, there’s a hospital in Argenbright?” said Rolland McCelland. “I thought the closest one was in Brookshaw. My sweet granny lives in Argenbright, she has to drive over an hour to get to Brookshaw Baptist.”

“Argenbright was supposed to be a hoity-toity development, once upon a time,” Jeff Brito said. “Went bust on Black Monday, I think. Not that folks were sorry to see them go.”

“You don’t just put hospitals in developments,” Rolland said. “People around here could’ve used it. Why did it close?”

“Lots of stories, but no one knows,” replied Lincoln. “I heard that an unlicensed pediatrician was working there for a while and got a few kids killed.”

“Built on a Superfund site and contaminated with dioxin in the water,” Arcelia said. “That’s what Urban Xpl0r said.”

Jeff was already on his phone. “I looked it up, the official word is lack of staff and lack of demand.”

“But not lack of bullshit,” Rolland said. “People need hospitals and hospitals bring jobs. Closing after 10 years and putting armed guards up is more than some corporate bigshot handing out pink slips.

Ruben Nuzzo, who had remained silent during the whole exchange, lifted a hand. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “There’s no way in, so I move that we go someplace else. UX Club is already at two nights in jail and I don’t want to make it a hat trick.”

“There was no way in,” Lincoln said, smiling. “I just happen to have a lead. My cousin works at the same security company, Asp Protective Services out of Brookshaw. They’re bankrupt after that lawsuit, closing up shop. The last paychecks bounced, and most of the guys have already walked off the job.”

“So they’ll just hire another security company, then,” Ruben said. “Named after another deadly animal or something.”

“Turns out my cousin wasn’t above taking a little revenge on Asp for shafting him,” Lincoln said. “Their contract isn’t up yet, and no one knows they’re toast until the announcement on Monday. That gives us a full three-day weekend to uncover, and explore, the secret of Argenbright Hospital with the UX Club.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

People grieve in their
Own way on their own time
But sometimes seeing them
With their memorial posts
Their pages for the dead
Just gives me a little of
The heebie jeebies
The grievie jeevies

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!