“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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Benedict was seated on an ammo crate, feet up. The tropical sun reflected off his Ray-Bans and the foil highlights on the Metallica shirt that peeked out from under his body armor.

“I don’t get it. The sunglasses, the t-shirt, the sneakers,” Cameron said. “You’re a professional. Why don’t you dress like one?”

“Does it really matter what I wear as long as they’re dead?” said Benedict. Seeing that wasn’t going to satisfy Cameron, he continued. “There are exactly two kinds of fighters out there. Those that’re intimidated by a uniform, and those that aren’t.”

“I…don’t follow.” Cameron said.

“I’m not here to intimidate anyone. You want to pay me for intimidation, fine. I’ll pour myself into a uniform, but it won’t come cheap. Otherwise, it’s better for my peace of mind and your bottom line if you let me dress however I please.” The sneer on Benedict’s face said that he’d given that speech before, and enjoyed it.

Cameron swallowed. “Point taken.”

“You think Lassiter’s out there wearing some itchy uniform instead of fighting comfortably?” Benedict said. He picked up a nearby magazine and began filling it with 9mm rounds. “Not bloody likely.”

Things had a funny way of happening in town, and this was as good an example as any you’re likely to find.

“Slim” Whitemore, a local stockyard worker, was out leaning on the local Greyhound bus building. He’d just gotten what was left of his paycheck after alimony and garnishments and was nursing a forty in a plain paper sack as local statutes demanded. Thing is, he was wearing a plaid shirt and jeans he’d bought secondhand–not unlike the outfit favored by one Davis Cunningham, especially when you throw in the John Deere cap and long afternoon shadows.

The brother of Davis’ ex-wife happened to be passing by on the other side of the street, and mistook Slim for his erstwhile brother-in-law. This led to some rather uncomplimentary remarks being exchanged. Slim, never a particularly subtle man even when sober, responded in kind. Then he pulled out the .45 revolver he kept for putting down diseased stock at the yard, and things started getting interesting.

A pistol’s not too accurate at that range in the best of circumstances, and tipsy trigger finger doesn’t do much to improve things. Despite emptying all five loaded cylinders, Slim didn’t come close to hitting his target. And if that had been all there was to tell, it might not have gotten any further than that–a story people told when they saw Slim sauntering into Carrie’s Red Dot, maybe.

But Slim and Davis’ ex-brother-in-law weren’t the only people on the square that day.

The victim was splayed out in the short grass next to the cornfield, just short of a grove of trees. The scene buzzed with activity as half a dozen people swarmed around the body, taking photographs, making notes, occasionally looking away as the view became too graphic.

Dr. Theodore Danna was onsite, moving slowly through the tumult and dispensing observations and advice. The group was raw, no doubt about that, but they went about their work with a wet-behind-the-ears enthusiasm that brought a thin smile to Danna’s face.

Rusty brakes squealed behind him as an official-looking vehicle move up the farm’s long, winding drive. Danna quickly pulled one of his crew aside, wanting to look busy. Whenever the higher-ups could bring themselves to visit (it did take a strong stomach), it was always best to be talking to someone, using plenty of scientific terms, so the interloper would be quite sure Dr. Danna was on the job instead of kicking back to watch corpses decompose with a tall drink at his elbow. After all, somebody who worked with them had to enjoy the gore on some level, right? Nevermind that TNT showed worse on its movie-of-the-night.

“So, Paula,” Danna said to a young woman hovering near the head of the victim. “What’ve you observed so far?”

Paula was always uncomfortable in the field; she’d come in with visions of sexy adventure right out of TV’s CSI, and the mundane yet alien quality of corpses seemed to shake her. “Well, I’ve noted quite a few Sarcophagidae, a few Staphylinidae, and Calliphoridae on the clothing. Flesh flies, rover beetles, and blowflies, if you want layman’s terms.”

“Always better to keep the two together,” Danna said. “It helps you sound smart without losing people. What would you estimate for the post-mortem interval? How long since the little guy bit it?”

Pamela squirmed, and Danna saw an approaching figure in a uniform from the corner of his eye. “I’d give a PDI of sixteen to eighteen hours.”

Danna was about to reply when he heard someone clear their throat behind him. Turning, he saw a thin, pasty-looking man in a Department of Natural Resources uniform a few paces away.

“Dr. Danna?”

“That’s me. And you are…?”

“Shapiro, Nate Shapiro, Tecumseh County DNR. I’m…not interrupting anything, am I?”

“No, no, of course not. Just letting the kids have a go at a murder victim.”

Shapiro glanced at the figure on the ground. “It’s a monkey in a track suit.”

“Nothing personal,” Luchari said, aiming the pistol. “Just business.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” said Da Silva.

Luchari lowered his gun. “How do you mean?”

“Would this being personal really make that much of a difference?” Da Silva shrugged as much as his restraints would allow. “I mean, after all, I’m dead either way.”

“I suppose so,” Luchari said, stroking his chin. “Never thought of it that way before.

“It being personal might even be a good thing. Me, I’ve done some bad stuff in my time. I can see a guy taking something like that, making it personal, and going out of his way to settle accounts. It’s what I’d do. I can respect that in a way.”

“You know,” Luchari said thoughtfully, “I think it’s really more for me, than for you. Makes me feel like I’m somehow not killing you in cold blood, that everything’s okay.”

“Hey, I know exactly where you’re coming from,” said Da Silva. “Whatever it takes to get you to sleep at night.”

“This has been very illuminating. Thank you.” Luchari smiled, then squeezed off two shots from the hip. Da Silva slumped forward, the back of his skull gone.

“I love it when someone comes up with something a little more creative than ‘please don’t kill me,'” Luchari said to his men. “Having a little stimulating conversation for a change makes this job that much easier.”

Many people pick up a pen because they hear the inscrutable call of the muse; they have a story that must be told, one which will haunt them until purged in the telling.

Mikey Kingston was not one of those people.

When he picked up his pencil in third period algebra or during lunch, it wasn’t because of some deep need to tell a story or write the Great American something or other. It wasn’t to write tales of high adventure of the sort alien to Howard J. Crittenden Junior High; it wasn’t to present as an offering to any of the Jennies, Katies, or Jessicas.

No.

Mikey Kingston wrote for revenge.

Not in the mean-spirited way, of course–he wasn’t making a hit list, which he was at pains to explain whenever the topic of literary revenge came up in the post-Columbine era.

Rather, Mikey had realized that, in real life, the savage Magma Men from Interion didn’t carry douches away to melt down for tallow in their Horrorariums deep below the great hollow rind of Mother Earth. In his fiction, sometimes that well-deserved fate was meted out.

At least that’s how it began, anyway.

“We have been content to watch from afar, to feed. Still, we always expected that someone would arrive,” said one of the Children.

“Just as the ruins of the old world gave birth to us, so too did we beget suffering and chaos unprecedented even in the time of its destruction,” said another, who might once have been a woman. “That was our ultimate revenge.”

“But we knew it could not last, just as the strife that burned for generations before our coming. Now that the wall has been breached, the time has come for the children of the old world to begin the next phase.”

“We have seen the suffering we have wrought echo across a hundred generations, but no more. As in all matters of revenge, we must now move on to death.” The Child who had spoken smiled, the eerie green light of the glass reflected in its eyes. “The Children of Xencobourg will sear our enemies to dust.”