Hawg Phillips drew Screamin’ Mimi aside. “Look,” he said. “I didn’t want to say nothin’ before, but I saw Death’s Head sneakin’ into the garage for The Undertower.”

Screamin’ Mimi’s tattoo (“Vaya Con Muerte”) lowered along with her suspicious eyebrows. “When was that?”

“Just before The Undertower wrecked at the last Truckasaurus Wrex in Cascadia.”

“Have you told anyone else, Hawg?”

Hawg stroked his waxed mustache. “I might’ve mentioned it to Popeye Phipps.”

“Might’ve?” Screamin’ Mimi said. “Hawg, this is the third monster trucker we’ve lost in a month. You gotta do better than ‘might’ve.”

“Look, I was loaded like a .38 when we was talkin’, okay?” said Hawg.

LEss than 12 hours later, he was dead.

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The man lay dead on the floor of his apartment, lovingly polished brass in his hands. “Look at this,” said the responding officer, Detective Mullins. He pointed at the cause of death, a bullet that had shattered the mouthpiece of the instrument before entering the man’s skull. “Shot him right through the sax organ.”

“Yeah, hell of a way to go,” said his backup, Grabowski. “From the pose and everything, it looks like he was in the middle of sax when he died.”

“Is it a sax crime?” said Mullins. “Should we get forensics in here to sweep for sax fluids?”

“Well, from what I see in the database, he was a registered sax offender. Played loudly after midnight despite repeated complaints.” Officer Grabowski shook his head.

“Don’t they send you to jail if you get back into sax with mirrors?” said Mullins, looking at the full-length mirror before which the dead sax offender had been playing. “That sort of thing makes me sick.”

“You thinking what I’m thinking?” said Grabowski. “Maybe this sax maniac had it coming? Maybe we just look the other way at another scumbag sax offender.”

Mullins frowned. “You’re sure this won’t come back to bite us?” he said. “It seems pretty clear that the people upstairs got tired of all the noisy sax.”

“Well, if he had been put away for sax crimes years ago, maybe,” said Grabowski. “Time was they’d call you a sax offender just for being horn-o-saxual. But this guy, with his rap sheet, and his sax with mirrors? No, the world is better off without his kind.”

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Their brutal emotions sated, the assassins buried Lily in the ducal gardens and took her head to the Marquess for their promised reward. The Marquess reveled in the destruction of whom she had been so intently jealous, and had the head cast into a sphere of pure crystal to set amongst her most cherished trophies in the crypt beneath her manor. It would serve, she thought, as both a reminder of her triumph and an immortalization of the beauty that she had pruned from the world.

The assassins, as it happened, buried the body beneath a weak and woody rosebush. The Duchess, distraught at the seeming disappearance of her only child, withdrew into herself and left the once-rich gardens to rot. There was therefore no gardener to arrest the sudden and intense rosebush growth that followed. It was visible to passersby through the locked and barred gate, and every day a few more stopped by to gawk.

In a way that few rosebushes do, the plant in the Duchess’s garden had a large and woody stem made from the seeming fusion of many smaller growths. In time, it was over five feet tall, with roses only at the end of two long branches; people began to notice shortly thereafter that the woody stem had developed on such a way, with twin knots above and below, that it resembled mothing so much as a female form.

Around the time the Duchess began to sicken, her mental collapse becoming a physical one as well, a bud appeared at the top of the “form” right around the place a head might have been. Wasting away took nearly six months for the poor Duchess, and during that time–in defiance of botanical logic–the bud grew larger and larger but never opened.

It was only with the peal of the bell announcing the Duchess’s death that an immense and blood-red rose opened atop the woody form. And it was only with her burial three days later that the humanlike form began to move.

Its ultimate destination? The Marquess’s crypts.

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“I must say, you’re taking this awfully well.”

Gerry Michaels, owner and pitmaster at Sizzler’s BBQ, shrugged. “It was never about the money, Nate. It was about the meat, about doing it for love of the game.”

Nate nodded, wiping his hands on his embroidered Sizzler’s apron. “Yeah,” he said. “But even so, this is still taking it really well. I mean, when we close, that’s it.”

Gerry remained focused on the meat in front of him, basting it with spice and sauce as it cooked over a wood-fired grill. “It is what it is,” he said. “And I’m not letting any of this stuff go to waste. Sunk costs, you know? Can’t return it and the food pantry won’t take it, so might as well go out in a blaze of glory.”

Sizzler’s had a bad location, right off the highway; people were practically past it by the time they realized they could stop, and if they were westbound they were pretty much out of luck entirely. It was too far from town for the city crowd and too close to it for the country one, and the building had a ramshackle appearance–on the outside, anyway–that was a function of it being the largest place that Gerry could afford with his savings. The property crash hadn’t helped; Nate had gone with Gerry to the bank when they’d foreclosed, trying to refinance, remortgage, re-anything. He’d gone to the investors, too, all local notables Gerry had known in his former life as a jobsite manager for a construction company and a deputy Tecumseh County sheriff.

“Going out in a blaze of glory doesn’t preclude a few middle fingers to people that screwed you over, Gerry,” said Nate.

“Sure it does,” Gerry replied. “Waving fingers around doesn’t solve or change anything.”

Based on the way they’d been treated by men who they’d called friends, Nate had said at the time, if anybody had cause to be bitter it was Gerry Michaels. Instead, he’d declared a gala going-out-of-business event to use up the supplies on hand: one invitation-only event for the bankers and investors, and another for the general public. Both free, what few expenses there were covered out of Gerry’s small pockets and volunteer labor from Nate.

“I’m just worried about you, that’s all,” said Nate. “I don’t want you having a heart attack on me or anything. Stress doesn’t help, and you can’t tell me you haven’t been plenty stressed trying to keep this place afloat. I know I have.”

“Go home, Nate,” Gerry said with a smile. “If I’m taking it well, so should you. Go on. I can handle this place myself, especially with only a half-dozen people coming to eat.”

Nate, reluctantly, agreed. He made to hang up his apron one last time, but Gerry stopped him. “Keep it,” he said.

“Thanks, Gerry. Good luck with the meal. It sure is a decent thing of you to do. I’m sure it’ll be a feast to remember.” Nate left through the back door, and a moment later Gerry heard his car coughing to life and rattling away down the road.

Gerry turned away from the sizzling meat for a second to retrieve a small, locked box from beneath a nearby countertop. He popped the lock with his keyring, and removed three items:

His lucky butcher’s knife with the name of Harold’s burned into its handle–the old greasy spoon, long since closed after Harold’s death, where Gerry had learned many of his tricks as a spit-turner in high school.

A tub of arsenic-based rat poison.

A Tecumseh County Sheriff’s Department .38 special service revolver, oiled and loaded.

“A feast to remember,” Gerry said softly. “A feast to remember.”

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Author Adriana Schmeidler’s provocative new book was a fictionalized tale of her struggle with eating disorders. Provocative partly because of its subject matter and partly because of the way it commingled the serious health risks of “the Nervosa Twins,” anorexia and bulimia, with a light and breezy comic tone.

Accordingly, the book’s publisher–mindful of the enormous success of Schmeidler’s past three books–decided on an aggressive advertising campaign. With the mantra that no press could be bad press, and attempting to trade as much as possible on Schmeidler’s newfound literary fame, they made her the centerpiece of said ad campaign. “Adriana Schmeidler Must Diet” trumpeted the ads, which featured the waifish author looking decidedly malnourished. The implication, naturally, was that a woman as slight as Schmeidler had no need of a diet.

The publisher had expected–indeed, they had counted on–a firestorm of protest. Schmeidler herself had a few reservations, but ultimately saw the novel’s comic tone and controversial content as the best way to start a national conversation on a topic she held near and dear.

What none of them had counted on was a simple printer’s error: the ad copy went to print and banner ads reading, instead, “Adriana Schmeidler Must Die.”

And it was only a matter of time before someone took her up on that apparent request.

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Officer Caruthers rubbed the back of his head. “Chief Strong has brought in an…outside advisor.”

Detective Gorrister sighed. “Strong and his outside advisors. This isn’t another radio psychic, is it?”

The apartment door nudged open, and a large man waddled in. He was dressed in Lincoln Green, and his greasy dark hair was thin in front and long and flowing in back, as if it were being grown out for a comb-over. “Hardly,” the man said. “Like any expert, I am here because of my overwhelming knowledge of and appreciation for the applicable lore.”

“Sherman Gregward,” Caruthers said. “He helped us out with that hostage situation a few months ago.”

“Please address me by my true name, Sherwood Greg, if you please,” intoned the man. “Collector, scholar, dungeon master, level 24 elven sorceress, head of the Council of Twelve, and overall coordinator for Nerdicon. Pre-registration for Nerdicon ’13 begins next week, and I’ve got plenty of plus ones if anyone’s interested.”

Gorrister gripped the bridge of her nose. “And what, exactly, do you bring to the table, Maid Marion?”

Sherwood Greg walked to a nearby end table and slapped down a thick deck of worn cards. “That’s what I bring to the table,” he said.

“A deck of Magick: Battle of Warlocks cards?” Corruthers snapped. “Tell me you’re joking.”

“You tell me, detective.” The corpulent collector cut the deck and revealed a card called The Multiphase Fleshwalker. It depicted a beautiful woman with one leg and one arm denuded of flesh, drawn in a quasi-realistic fantasy style, with the following text beneath it:

Strength 6/Defense 6
Costs three cornfields to activate
Restore one life to casting warlock
Protect casting warlock from life damage for one turn when rotated
Once rotated, may not be used unless caster rotates an additional six cornfields
“They restore one’s flesh at the cost of their own, and are always looking for a lifeforce to drain to restore the beauty they so desperately crave but never attain.”

“Holy shit,” said Caruthers. “It’s just like the murder.”

Sherwood Greg nodded toward the mutilated corpse behind the two officers. “Looks like someone is desperate to restore their life points,” he said.

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Harry desperately examined the newspaper he’d found in the old china hutch, looking for obvious signs of forgery. Misspellings, ribald jokes, anything. But no, at least as a far as a surface examination was concerned, it looked authentic. The paper had even attained a patina of age, the sort only seen after exposure to the air for months or years.

“Daddy, why are you messing with that dirty old paper?” Madelaine looked up from her frosted flakes.

“Well, I-”

“There’s a new one on the porch, you know,” his daughter said with a five-year-old’s self-assurance.

“I’m…I’m looking at it to see if I can remember what happened way back then,” Harry said. “You know, ’cause I’m old.”

Madelaine nodded. “Yeah, old people are like that sometimes.” She finished the bowl and stood on tiptoes to get it into the sink before wandering into the TV room.

Harry watched her go with a mixture of pride and fear before turning back to the newspaper, which claimed to be an issue of the Sunday Cascadia Post, Tecumseh County Edition. It was dated June 17, 2018: 5 years, 7 months, and 12 days from the date on Harry’s day calendar.

In between mundane articles on the midterm elections and a Deerton millage for a new high school, there was a half-page spread on A2 entitled “One Year Later: A Search for Answers in the Ockham Murder.” The article glossed over events that its readers were presumably familiar with: while the Deerton police had been distracted by a fire on the other side of town, someone had kidnapped and murdered a victim in the old abandoned Petersen barn off US 313.

The picture accompanying the article showed the barn festooned with flowers, teddy bears, and banners of support. The largest banner covered nearly a quarter of the barn’s side and bore the logo of the Deerton Rotary Club.

It read, simply, Madelaine Ockham, beloved daughter, 4/12/07-6/18/17.

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“Love to, but can’t,” Sheila said. She took another generous sip from her thermos. “Dead.”

“Dead?” Ruckell said. “I think I’d have heard about that.”

Sheila shrugged. “Obituary’ll be in Monday’s paper. We got the news too late to make Friday’s.”

“What happened?”

Another long, deliberate sip. “Not sure it’s any of your business.”

Ruckell sighed. “Do I really have to stick my badge in your face again, ma’am?”

“Do you?” Sheila raised the thermos again.

Ruckell swatted it away. It clattered to the ground–there was nothing in it. She’d been sucking on an empty thermos just to spite him. He held his badge inches from Sheila’s face. “How…did…he…die?”

“Whitewater rafting,” Sheila hissed. “Boat overturned. They found everyone downstream, drowned.”

“Well, putrefaction had pretty well set in by the time we were able to run our tests,” Schoenberg said, “but we were able to identify the substance found on the victim’s hands and under her fingernails.”

“Excellent,” said Maier, putting aside her paperwork. “Let’s hear it.”

“It’s chrysophanic acid, also known as rumicen and a host of other lay names,” Schoenberg said, laying a folder with the results on Maier’s desk. “It’s a yellow crystalline substance extracted from rhubarb, yellow dock, sienna, and other related plants.”

“So we cross-check our victim with known rhubarb farmers?” Maier said. “Somehow I doubt that’s going to get us anywhere.”

“It’s used in the treatment of skin diseases, mostly by herbal nuts. You tend to see it used to treat psoriasis, eczema, and the like by people who are allergic to the standard treatments or–more often–granola-shitting hippies.”

“That’s awfully square of you, Detective,” Maier laughed. “Weren’t you born during the Summer of Love?”

“Yeah, to a military family. My family never wondered why the national guard opened up on the flower power set; we wondered why they stopped.”

Stjepan Pečenić, originally from the city of Split in Dalmatia, came to Southern Michigan University in 1981 to teach mathematics. Dr. Pečenić claimed that the Yugoslav government had been persecuting him for his political beliefs; that argument got him asylum, but word had it that was just a glossy cover story. Dr. Cvijić in Engineering was particularly outspoken in her claim (inherited from her father) that Pečenić had been forced to flee after the death of his patron, Tito, and that he’s been a loyal party man until power struggles had forced him out.

In the mathematics department and among his students, Pečenić was known as the “Ragin’ Croatian” for his heavily accented outbursts in which he would rail semi-intelligibly against everything from the laziness of his students to the lack of creativity in his peers to the administration’s short-sighted reluctance to raise his salary. Most students hoped they didn’t get him, and Pečenić was happy to oblige, preferring research to teaching.

That said, nobody was quite expecting to find him face-down on his desk one Monday morning with a particularly difficult set of linear equations soaking up his lifeblood. He’d been shot in the temple at close range.