Uri Savashadam, the top Israeli assassin, stared across the table as the joke hung in the air.

“Did…did you just make a joke about how drinking only almond milk would be just nuts?” the client said.

“Yeah,” Savashadam said, downing a tall glass of the stuff. “Is that a problem?”

“Well, I’m just not used to it.”

“You’re used to assassins with sticks up their ass, eh?” Savashadam laughed. “Well, I like to make jokes, so deal with it. Murder can be fun, so why not enjoy life while making a killing, eh?”

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Chris ran a hand over the book, feeling the raised print under finger and palm. It was glossy, like a well-loved leather binding, even as it looked utterly new and unread, its leaves parchment-brown and ragged as if they had just been cut. On the title, embossed into the center of a sunburst, was Chris’s name.

“What is it?”

The oracle regarded Chris through the featureless expanse of its mask. “It is your book,” it said. “Your tome. Every story in your life, that has happened or will happen. Written at the time of your creation by the same hand.”

“What if I change something in it?” Chris said.

“Many have,” replied the oracle, evenly. “People have traveled here through fire and death, through their own private purgatories and worse, to set hands upon their tome. You may tear leaves out, alter them, or add new ones.” The oracle gestured to an inkstone and calligraphy pen at its side with a robed limb.

Chris opened the book to the section indicated by a fine ribbon bookmark. Glancing at the page, it seemed to be about the encounter with and questions asked of the oracle.

“The bookmark represents where you are,” said the oracle. “Changing the leaves that have gone before will alter memory. Changing the ones yet to come will alter reality.”

“Why would someone want to tear out their memory?”

“It is by far the most common action among the lucky few that have made it here,” the oracle said. “But the choice is yours. Alter memory, alter reality, or leave the book as it lies and return to your waking life.”

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Digging Bird
(Pipilo erythrophthalmus, eastern towhee)

We hear you calling your name from the verge, proclaimed boldly by a shy speaker. When you venture out, kicking with both legs for buried and chitinous treasures, your red flanks shine above white, with midnight black or chocolate brown above. But there are no songs about you, no poems, no postcards. Your brilliance is every bit the equal of bluebird, redbird. But without their brashness, their showmanship, you remain a well-kept secret, scratching your work onto paper of unyielding clay. Perhaps that’s how you prefer things.

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Laser Bird
(Colaptes auratus, northern flicker)

Echoing there, on the verge of the woods, a sound straight out of science fiction. A lonely Endor laser blast, cutting through the gloom of the real 21st century, the real and depressing future. Perhaps he knows he is declining, as the second-growth pines of the south are plowed under for ever more condos. Perhaps he knows that his kind may never see a future like the one hinted at in their calls. Or perhaps he knows it is easier to fade away like a strange sound echoing in the woods. When we see him, rarely, he is on the ground. Silent. A ersatz pigeon, with nothing to link him to the fading call we hear every so often on the wind from the woods.

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Laughing Bird
(Sitta canadensis, red-breasted nuthatch)

We hear him up there in the pines, cackling at a secret joke with a pal or two. What is so funny, that this tiny tree-hyena is in stitches? Perhaps he knows that there are birders nearby, birders with decent cameras who would love to catch even a fleeting snapshot of him. But Laughing Bird is small and fast, a blue-orange blur, and he knows that anyone with a camera capable of capturing him is camped out by the lake looking for migrating shorebirds. His is the laugh of the carefree, the jester, who has let you in on a private joke even though no one will ever find it as funny as he does.

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“Did you hear about Saint-Marc?” Jean said. He was reading from a stack of letters that had been brought in with the latest supplies, his cuirass and spurs still attached from the day’s fighting in the hostile Spanish countryside.

“Handsome Marc?” said his compatriot, Louis-Luc. “What happened to him?”

“In Austria, he lost his cheek.”

“What?” Louis-Luc said, rocking back in a liberated Spanish chair, his boots pulled clean off a liberated Spanish desk stuffed with plunder and booty destined for the Emperor.

“He was shot, in the cheek,” Jean said. “It was torn away. He’ll live, but…Handsome Marc no more, eh?”

“I initially interpreted ‘lost his cheek’ to mean “became less cheeky,” Louis-Luc said.

“As if that could ever happen, with Marc.”

“Then the mind went straight to butts,” continued Louis-Luc. “I shan’t lie.”

“You went from his personality to his ass in the space of one misunderstood sentence,” Jean said. “That’s quite fast. Even for you.”

“What can I say? It was a roundabout journey with all the twists and turns and cracks of an adventure novel. Only without leaving my chair.”

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After urging his followers to break into the Senotaph chambers and devour all the Senators there preparing to certify his opponent Medulla “Dully” Oblongata’s victory, Zombie President Brayne walked back his remarks in an early evening speech.

“I love the way you, my fellow zombies, are breaking into the Senotaph and devouring my opponents, tearing them limb from limb,” Brayne said. “But if you could do it quietly, peacefully, respectfully, that would be nice.”

Despite the fact that they were literally being attacked and in many cases devoured by Brayne’s rabid followers, 3/5 of the Mortician Party’s members in the Senotaph objected to Zombie Vice President Mortis’s certification of the results. This was not enough to overturn the results of the election, however, as the Senotaph and Mortis voted to uphold the results before they were torn to shreds.

In response, the surviving members of the Mortician Party admitted that Brayne “could have handled the situation better” but dismissed any talk of removing, impeaching, censuring, or talking to the Zombie President in any way would be “premature” and “an overreaction.” In contrast, the Necrotic Party, which is set to take over both the Senotaph and the Blight House in a few days, confirmed to news outlets that it had composed a “polite but firm letter” that it was passing to Brayne’s underlings, with the hope that they would “give him the jist of it.”

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“That’s Vigorish Sleesh,” said TCG-80. “Some folks know him as the new Andromeda Fats, but not me.”

“Tiny” Bucca frowned. “He just looks like a slug in a fancy suit to me. Andromeda Fats was more than just a tub of lard, he was the best Tarazed Hold-Em player in the Fifty Systems.”

“Ah, but Mr. Sleesh has a secret weapon,” TCG-80 replied. “He has a tumor in his probability gland, you see. Quite inoperable, but also rather benign.”

“Aldebaran bareaks have probability glands?” Bucca said.

“So do you, yours is just so small that it hardly makes a difference. But Sleesh? He will always have the least statistically likely set of cards in any given game. Most of the time that’s a winning hand, but not always. He loses just enough bad beats to keep him coming back.”

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Noxapater. They say it means “little bullets” in Choctaw, but I bet they’ve never asked an actual Choctaw to be sure. All that matters is that Noxapater himself chose it as his name for that reason, I guess, since he wasn’t the sort to argue or bandy words.

Not that he was the sort of psychopath who’d kill you just for disagreeing with him. Those people didn’t last long in the guild. No, Noxapater was the sort of assassin who was wound tighter than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, and taking a life unsprung that tension for him. He always took a vacation afterwards, someplace real nice on the guild’s dime, and he’d show up with a bit of a tan and ready for work once his psychoses had rewound themselves.

He wasn’t like Ellerbee, who would talk your ear off as a cover for slight-of-hand, or even like Sones, who was on a monosyllable-only basis with everyone who wasn’t his mama. No, Noxapater was the sort who would listen, maybe with a nod or a “yep,” until the topic was something that interested him, and then you’d find yourself doing the nodding and the yepping.

I remember, back when I was real new with the guild, I mentioned a funny little pistol that a contract had used in self defense. Noxapater had been listening like a stone up until that point, but he perked right up at that, and soon I was in the middle of a twenty-minute lecture on the virtues of a silenced Astra 3000 pistol for wetwork, the intricacies of the Basque firearms industry, and why .32 ACP was not to be taken lightly when fired from a simple, reliable pistol.

You could say he practiced what he preached, since the next contract I heard about through the informal guild grapevine was that Noxapater had killed a philandering stockbroker in Buenos Aires with just such a pistol. Followed, of course, by a six-week vacation to Iguazu Falls.

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They said the world is hard
So best harden your heart
Taking their advice, with lard
In the end was not smart

Quite the I rebel I was
Never took orders well
My cells didn’t either
And from tumors I fell

They said smoking kills
And I didn’t pay heed
I’m sorry for the bills
For helping me breathe

A big thinker I was
Deep thoughts, had a lot
The last one gave me pause
Being mostly a clot

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