Coming Back, Part 1

(Okay. This is the biggest gap in posting yet; mostly an issue of writing too infrequently. Some of what I am working on is not for the blog, so I have not been entire idle. Nonetheless, I have some time to work on some blog-worthy items in the very near future. I expect this will keep me closer to the original posting goal. We’ll see.

I offer up a version of a story that I have started a few times, lost traction and started again. Mostly a matter of being dissatisfied with the nature of the characters and story direction. Rather than draw out my posting delay by another couple of weeks, I offer up the latest incarnation of the beginning. It likely falls under the umbrella of occult mystery horror. I am still undecided if I need to light the fuse on this start, too. Hope you enjoy.)

Gloria could not help but notice the eerie calm in Mona.  Her sister was no softy, far from it, yet it had been a tumultuous six months.  Mona was either in shock, denial or was, indeed, an emotional rock.  Gloria wondered if this was a good or bad thing.  For her own part, the strain was stretching her thin.

               Fredrik, Mona’s late husband, had died six months ago, victim of an unusual, hereditary blood disorder.  He was only fifty-two.  The condition had been in his family for several generations, and early deaths among the males of the family were common.  This was especially troubling considering he was otherwise in very good health.  Gloria and Fredrik’s only child, Lukas, had been suffering from the same family illness for a few years; and the effects had accelerated in the past year.  Now Lukas, in his mid-twenties, was on his deathbed.

               Not that it mattered in times of life and death, but Gloria now controlled the family business.  H-Stadt Corporation was a large, multinational holding company worth many billions of dollars.  A minor confidence crisis naturally arose when Fredrik passed and his son was known to be ill.  The company had numerous, highly qualified advisors that did not matter much to stockholders; all they could see was Gloria running the day-to-day operation with almost no experience, and stock prices were trending down.  The stress was real.

               Then, few days ago, a rainy day in early October, Mona called and asked for help; a rare thing.

               “It will only be for a few days,” Mona had said over the phone.  “I really just need you here.  I don’t want to get into details on the phone.”  Her voice sounded as though she had been drinking.

               “Of course,” Gloria had agreed, knowing it had to be related to Lukas.  He had been undergoing an experimental therapy that was not working out.  As she packed a quick bag and called her boss, Mona was sure she was going to say goodbye to Lukas, followed by his funeral.  Mona had insisted she take the private jet, not wanting to risk delays.

               When she arrived that afternoon, Gloria was not sure how to react.  It was not exactly what she expected.  Mona was, packed and waiting, joining her directly in the jet.

               “What is going on?” Gloria asked, noticing Mona’s dark glasses and the scent of alcohol on her breath.  “Where are we going?  Have they moved Lukas?”

               Mona stayed silent until the plane was secured and her security man was up front with the pilot.

               “Thank-you for coming,” Mona said, removing her glasses to reveal tear-reddened eyes.  “Everything is so confusing.  I just needed you with me for a while, to support me.  I hope that’s okay.”

               Gloria was certain they were going to pull the plug on Lukas, a difficult call for anyone; a back breaker for a mother.  It made sense that her sister needed her.

               “I would not have it any other way,” Gloria returned quickly.  “This must be brutal.  I am here for as long as you need me, okay?”

               “Thanks, Gloria,” Mona said, her voice catching on the emotion for just a moment.  “I don’t know if I could do this alone.”

               They sat in silence as the plane refueled.  Mona poured herself a drink and lit a cigarette; Gloria let it go.  She had a right to cope how she could. Normally, she smoked very little, and drank even less.  It would pass.

               “Where are we going?” Gloria asked, after they had both settled.  “Are they moving Lukas?”

               Mona took a moment to answer, as though she did not know what to say.  “Yes, they are moving him.  This will be the last time, one way or the other.”

               Poor Mona, Gloria thought, she has one last, experimental therapy for Lukas; a final, desperate attempt to keep him.

               “I’m with you,” she told Mona, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.

               “Thanks,” Mona said with a sniffle.  “We are going to Europe, to answer your question.”

               “Really?” Gloria wondered aloud.  She had read about various therapies, surgeries, medications and other treatments for Lukas’ condition, but Europe had not been a hot spot for research.  This was new.

               “The treatment is highly unorthodox, and completely experimental.  It is not a medically sanctioned facility,” Mona said, putting her glasses back on as the plane taxied to the runway.  “I waited until the ordinary, scientific approach was out of solutions first.”

               Gloria sat back, content to have her sister talk it out; or just rest with silent support.  Her husband and son passing within a year was a suffering beyond comprehension.

               The flight was mostly spent in silence.  Mona did not say much, commenting a little on the state of the family business and her workload.  Exhaustion made her sleep for several hours, while Gloria fidgeted and worried about the entire ordeal to come.

Sacrifice, Part 4

(Horror. Things get properly weird when Colin reveals a new secret of the Hardwick House)

They lingered in the woods before returning.  The presence, as if sensing Colin’s fatigue and resentment, returned with less urgency and intensity, giving him room to breathe.  The day was starting to pass away, the sun dipping toward the tree line.  They walked through cellars with care.  “The newer wings of the house,” Colin explained in the dim light of the first cellar, “have separate cellars because the original never had one.”

Macy was actually relieved when they finished seeing the cellars.  The low, dark rooms were dusty and filled with odd, creepy tools and devices that looked frightening in the poor lighting.  She kept close to Colin and tried to imagine she was in a museum.

They ate sandwiches and drank some wine for their supper.  The evening seemed to take root earlier than usual.  “The valley,” Colin said when she mentioned it.  “It makes it seem like the sun comes up later and goes down earlier.  I had forgotten.”

The darkness brought on an entirely new feel to the building.  As the light retreated from the sky, and the full moon took over, what had been a cosy, odd house felt forbidding and eerie.  Macy noticed the change quickly, while Colin barely felt it.  Some of the lights in the house were not working and Colin could not tell if they were burnt out or had other issues.  Macy decided it would be best to stick close to the master suite until morning.

Colin made the pretense of working on his laptop for a while, supposedly recording his observations of maintenance.  Macy played a game on her phone to kill time.

It was beginning to feel quite late when Colin, now starting to feel a growing urgency from the house, closed his laptop and moved closer to Macy, trying his best to be mischievous and charming.  “I almost forgot to show you something very important,” he said.  “It just occurred to me when I was recording all the maintenance stuff.”

Macy was equally interested and suspicious.  “And what’s that?”

“The secret passage!” he said.  “It is really neat.  I used to love it as a kid.”

A few hours earlier and she might have gone for it, straight away; now, the house had bad feeling about it.  Something just did not seem right and she could not explain it.  Colin was looking at her with keen excitement for the first time since they left, making her challenge her instincts about staying put.  She was pleased to see him looking happy and did not want to spoil the moment.  She let her guard down, pushing her instincts aside.

“Really,” she teased, not wanting to give him no fight on the matter, “and why would this place need a secret passage?”

Colin had expected the question in the way a professional tennis player expects the ball to return to them at a certain place on the court, hitting it back with seeming comfort.  “The family had been smugglers,” he began smoothly, still working his charm.  “When they build the place, Charles Hardwick, the grand old man of the family, got it into his head he should have a comfortable way out in case they had issues with the law.”

“You’re not going to tell me there is an underground tunnel leading off the property,” Macy challenged, drawing the line at creeping through a dark, icky hole in the ground.

“Nothing like that, although there were plans for it,” Colin explained, trying not to sound too forced.  “The old man wanted to build an escape tunnel, but never got around to it, and his successors didn’t think it was needed.  Of course, they were slowly moving away from the illegal work and focussing on legitimate business by then.  Anyway, old Charlie had his secret passage though the house and it stayed, even without the tunnel.”

“And you want to see it now?” Macy asked in a negative tone, hoping he would settle for seeing it during the day.

“Call it an adventure,” he said, smashing the ball back in her court as he had expected he would have to.  “It was a fond memory for me when I was a kid, playing around in the secret passage, even if it was not a secret anymore.”  This was partly true.  Colin did enjoy the mystery and adventure of the passage when he was young.

Macy tried to think of some way to bail on the idea, but Colin was so excited and she wanted to make him happy.  In some way or other, she had lingering guilt about sexually withholding herself from him, and it was times like this when she felt the pang of it.  Her heart gave way and she agreed to go.

“You have to stay with me the whole time,” she said, setting limits as soon as she agreed.  “And no fooling around, I’m already a little scared about it.”

Colin soothed, “I will be with you the whole way,” he said.  “It will be all right.”

She instinctively grabbed her phone, until she remembered it was no use.  Colin, still playing the game as if it were practiced, grabbed one of the camping lights he had packed in case of power failure; brandishing it for her to see.  She used the bathroom before they were to go, finally preparing herself by taking a flashlight of her own.

“Okay,” she said, after a deep breath, “where does it start?”

“Right here,” he said, grinning.  He moved to one of the paintings and gently pulled it back.  The man in the portrait was typically grim and practically frowning; he looked almost angry with his high collar and dark eyes.  “Excuse me, Charles,” he apologized, pressing a small notch in the wood trim behind the scowling picture.  “Yes, that is the old man himself,” Colin remarked.  As he approached another wall and ran his finger along the base board until it reached a specific groove, pressing it firmly.  A loud set of clicks and one of the panels opened, just an inch or so, like a door.  Colin gave her his best, reassuring smile and pushed the panel back, revealing the passage beyond.

“Shit,” was all Macy managed to say.

Colin turned his light on and shined it down the corridor.  The walls were rough wood but dry and clean, even less dusty than the rest of the building.  He stepped through the door, ducking slightly through the entry.  Macy grabbed his arm, “We will be okay, right?”

He turned back to her, ready to win another point in this planned tennis match, “I have done this many times as a kid.  The passage is nothing to be afraid of.”  Her eyes looked carefully into his, as if searching for some doubt; when she found none, she relented.

The passageway was smaller than he remembered, though he was nine when he last set foot in it, but roomy enough for an adult man to walk upright with a little shoulder room to spare.  They took a turn ten feet in, leading to a steep stair that felt more like a ladder to Macy; this lead to a series of short passages, ending in stairs.  Macy was a bit disoriented, but knew they were trending down in their travels.  “Where does this come out?” she whispered ahead to Colin as they reached another stair leading down.

“The exit is just below us,” he said, whispering back.  The presence, which had mostly given him some space since their walk outside, was starting to build again; it was growing anxious, Colin could tell.

The final set of stairs was the easiest set, leading to a small room with stone walls and floors.  “Are we in the basement?” Macy asked in sudden panic.  She had not liked their earlier trip to basement and her nerves were not taking the return well.  It was an unreasonable fear, she knew, yet could no longer contain it.

“Macy,” Colin said, a little harshly, “it will be all right.  Just calm down and understand we are safe.”

“I just want to go back to the bedroom, okay,” she said, a little franticly.  “The adventure has been awesome, now it’s time to fucking go back, okay?!”

“Macy,” he said, rather firmly, “We are almost out, now.  It is faster if we just go to the next room and go straight back into the house.”  The presence was growing agitated, as if anticipating things to come, spurred on by Macy’s burst of emotion.

“Okay, okay,” she said impatiently, “then just go quick, I can’t stand it.” She was shaking, now.

A heavy, wooden door was the only other exit in the room.  Colin turned an ancient latch and shouldered the door open.  Macy stayed right with him as he pushed though.  She squeezed past as he closed the door behind them.  The room was just wrong.

Sacrifice, Part 3

(Horror)

            Colin fussed with the keys before finding one that worked, commenting on how they were all using skeleton keys when he left.  The door opened to a fairly modest entrance, strangely small for the size of the house.  It smelled old and a bit damp.

            “Seems a bit small for such a big place,” she commented.

            “This is part of the original house, before they expanded it,” he said, trying to ignore a familiar, awkward presence.  “Some of the old house was changed around, just not the entrance or halls.  When I was growing up, the decor was very much a rustic, old style.  Most of the furniture and wood is original.”

            “It looks in decent shape,” Macy commented, looking over the walls and windows as they passed through the halls.  “Are these paintings all originals?”

            “Yeah,” he said leading the way down the hall, “and only a few have needed restoration work.”

            “And these are family portraits, then?” she asked, slightly awed by the stern folk, depicted in rigid, firm stances.  They were like something out of an early Victorian museum.

            “Pretty much,” he said, hardly looking at them.  “The odd one is some family friend or something.  They were a tight knit clan from all the history I was ever told.  And here is the staircase.”

            The oak stairs were in perfect shape, other than a bit of dust, and curved up to meet a landing that branched off into the upper floors.  The wood was not ornate or decorative.  It was a simple, sturdy construction meant to last; similar to the rest of the house.

            “So far, it doesn’t look like Cyril took anything from the place,” Colin said, finding it better to talk than address the growing presence stirring around him.

            “I can’t wait for a proper tour,” Macy said, starting to forget her earlier concerns and enjoy the moment.

            “Cyril probably lived in the master suite while he was here, so that is where we are headed,” Colin explained as they moved through another dusty hall.  “It should be set up for modern living, or close.”

            The master suite was large without being expansive.  It had a full bathroom, sitting room and study.  It was all right out of a history book.  Of all the things in the room, only the bed struck Macy as being over the top.  It was high and deep, with immense oak posts supporting a velvet canopy.

            Colin pulled gently on a cord that hung down from the high ceiling and the lights came on.  Macy gave him a looked of awe and surprise.  “That is so weird,” she said, “and cool at the same time.  What the heck?”

             Colin laughed at that.  He had taken the strange light switches for granted as a kid; in fact, normal wall switches took him a while to get used to.  “They used to have these connected to a bell downstairs for the servants.  They never got rid of them, so now they turn the lights on and off.”

            Macy gave the cord a short tug and the lights went off.  She laughed, too.  It was all so strange and wonderful; and it helped her connect with Colin’s unusual past.  She felt closer to him than ever.

            The room had fresh bedding and was otherwise set to live in.  Colin took Macy on a tour of the building, checking the state of things as they went.  The house had changed very little since he left so many years ago.  The odds and ends repairs that Cyril had made really took care of the worst issues; the rest was all a matter of details.  The rooms were in order, drop cloths protected anything worth protecting, and the worst cleaning needed was some dusting.  The returning memories helped Colin manage the increasing pressure from the presence in the building.  It took them nearly two hours to see everything except the cellars, by which time he had a headache from focussing on the tour and denying the presence.

            “We don’t have to see the cellar,” Macy said, noticing his changed temperament, assuming fatigue or emotional strain.  “We can just rest a bit, if you want.”

            “Actually,” Colin said, “how about I show you the old stable house?”  They had seen the building from the windows facing the back of the property.  Macy agreed, thinking the fresh air would be a good change.

            The presence in the house had less strength when Colin was out.  He found a bit of clarity and release as they crossed the yard to the stables.  He found the key for that lock and opened it up.  There wasn’t much to see.  The family only kept a couple of horses when he was kid, and they were older animals kept mostly for the nostalgia of it.  Faint traces of manure and damp wood lingered.  The wall was littered with traps, chains, tackle and harness, tools and supplies.  Most hung on nails or hooks.  Not much to see, but the distance from the house was a relaxing change for Colin.

            “How about a walk around the grounds?” he asked her.  The weather was pleasant enough and they toured the remnants of the garden.  It had completely grown over and gone wild.  Some failing fruit trees had suffered greatly from strangling ivy.  They walked through the path into the forest beyond the garden.  The stones were covered in moss and forest litter, but the path remained clear enough to pass comfortably.  The pair of stone bridges over the creek stood strong as ever, adding a pinch of civilization to the forest.  They walked in silence; Macy trying to give Colin some space to deal with whatever was ailing him.

            For Colin, the ground past the last foot bridge was safe ground from the nagging pressure within the house.  His mind was completely clear after they crossed it.  He recalled, as a youth, that it was so.  He was not sure if the presence had become stronger, somehow, or he was simply not used to it after the long absence.  The respite would be short lived, he knew, though it was welcome.

            He looked at Macy like he had not seen her before.  She was not an ugly girl, to be sure, though modelling would never be an option.  She was slim and kept good care of herself.  Her personality was generally pleasant, though she was a bit needy and tended to nag.  She was from a working class family with no major red flags for him.  In all, not a bad girl; but not one he really cared to marry.  He regretted her part in the events to come.

Sacrifice, Part 2

(The horror story continues.)

“Yeah,” Colin said, “it is.  That’s all part of the charm, of course.”

     “Are there any neighbours close by?”

     Colin pressed his memory.  The family did not really mix much with friends or neighbours in the area.  That sort of thing only started after the move to New York.  The closest thing he could recall was an older, farming couple that were a short drive away; and, even then, he was under the impression that their property had since been added to the Hardwick estate.

     “Not close by, for sure,” he said.  “The house itself is huge, and the property extends a few miles or so around it.  It is an old estate.  Not many like it, anymore.”

     “You figure it was built about two hundred years ago?” Macy asked, enjoying the start of their chat.

     “The original part of the house was built right before the Revolution,” he said, remembering what his grandparents had explained to him a million times as a boy.  “The exact date is not known because they added the rest of the house about ten years later, when the British were gone and things had calmed down.  So, technically, the building is about two hundred years old.”

     “The Hardwick’s must have made good money,” she said, suddenly into new territory with the history of the mansion.  “What did they do?”

     “Well, the official, family line is has it as a combination of old money from Europe and a mix of local business interests.  We know they owned sawmills, forges and several general stores, but it gets murky beyond that.”

     “Ah,” she laughed, “finally some juicy stuff.  Do tell.”

     Colin smiled.  The conversation was actually enjoyable to him, as well.  “There is a ton of rumour that they smuggled just about anything and everything you can imagine.  It is said this brought the Hardwick’s to the colonies, in the first place.  During the revolution, their smuggling operations went into overdrive.  The expansion to Hardwick House was a result.”

     “So they smuggled goods past the British,” Macy laughed, her knowledge of history quite limited.  Her understanding of the American Revolution was that the British had high taxes, the Americans revolted and won.  George Washington and Thomas Edison were mixed into it, somehow, too.  “You come from patriotic roots,” Macy added.

     “Not likely,” Colin said, half smiling.  “Rumour has it that the Hardwicks smuggled for both sides, until it was clear the British were finished.  Then, they sided exclusively with the American cause.  Business probably trumped politics.”

     “Scandalous,” Macy said, looking at their surroundings.  She noticed, rather suddenly, that there were no power lines flanking the road side.  She glanced at her phone, noticing the reception was at zero bars.  A glance at the GPS showed it was searching for satellites.  She waited a few minutes before bringing her growing angst to her fiancé, who seemed oblivious to it all.

     “You do know where you are going, right?” she asked.

     “Absolutely,” Colin said, suddenly noting the state of the GPS.  “Don’t worry about that, I looked the map over before we left.  The area has always lagged behind with technology.  Your phone probably doesn’t have much reception out here, either.”

     “Are you from a Quaker family or something?” Macy asked, suddenly unsure of what was coming.  “This place does have electricity, right?”

     Colin laughed, almost choking from it.  “Not Quakers, no,” he said, trying to calm down, “but suspicious of new things, yes.  The land is in a bit of a valley and there are no cell towers on or near it.  I am not even sure if Uncle Cyril owned a cell phone; and if he did, he was the first in the family to live at the house with one.”

     “And the electricity?” she asked with growing suspicion of her own.

     “They have a private line running off the grid,” Colin explained.  “My grandparents were very suspicious of outsider access to the property, so they cut some deals to make sure the lines were off limits to government people.  It was only installed after I was born, in fact.”

     “And it is working now?”

     “I am told so,” Colin said, “but the power was never reliable, even after it was installed.  A rural reality.”

     “The charm of the weekend is sure rubbing off quickly,” she muttered.

     “It will all be over before you know it, dear,” he said, lacing in his best charm.

     They did not drive much further when they reached the turn to the property.  It was a private road, complete with a gate and no trespassing sign.  Colin pulled up to the gate, got out and unlocked the padlock with one of the keys that had been mailed to him.  After driving through, he locked the gate behind them.

     “Why bother?” Macy asked when he returned to the car.

     “A minor precaution against trespassers,” Colin said, “and it helps with any insurance issues that might come up.  Stupid, I know.”

     The private road to the house was not much different than the last few miles of dirt road.  It was rutted and worn, probably one of the first things needing repair.  The trees were a little closer and the light seemed a bit dimmer, especially for noon.  Macy’s sense of distance was worse than her history, but it was quite a distance from the gate before they reached Hardwick House.

     The building was vaguely Victorian, though it had almost gothic elements on the exterior.  Built on a small rise, just clear of the forest line, the house stood three stories and seemed to sprawl out like a monster on a rock.  The final approach was covered with paving stones, lined with cherry trees.  It was almost beautiful.

     “Wow,” Macy said, taking in the building and grounds.  There were statues and a small fountain in front of the building, now a touch mossy and entangled with vines.  The building exterior showed signs of both weathering and recent repair.  Colin was growing distracted as they came to a stop in front of the main door.  When they stepped out of the car, the world was silent; no sound, wild or otherwise, was to be heard.  The sudden change was almost palpable, and Colin filled the gap awkwardly, despite being awash in his own thoughts.

     “Welcome to Hardwick House!” he exclaimed in a mock showy tone.

     If it had not been for the newest concerns of electricity, cell service, and complete isolation, Macy might have found the place quaint.  The charm was there, yet her mood was off; and she was not confident she would shake it.

Sacrifice, Part 1

(I return from holidays a little refreshed and ready to kick off 2020. I hope everyone had a happy and restful time. Thought I would switch gears from the long, sci-fi and jump back to some shorter, spooky stuff. This is a horror/ghost story with just a hint of mystery thrown in. Hope you enjoy.)

“You have been putting this off for forever, Colin,” Macy nagged playfully.  “Like so many other things.”

            Colin was getting used to the nagging; it was growing more frequent as the wedding day approached.  He put up with it, on account of the bigger picture.  “The old house isn’t going anywhere, so a few more minutes will be okay.”

            “I guess so,” she agreed, keeping things playful.

            The car was already packed and ready for the short drive to the Hardwick House.  Even though he had only brought up the family house recently, the trip to see it was high on both their priority lists.  Macy already knew she liked Colin; he fit her check list so well that it sometimes scared her.  His family had dwindled from several accidents and tremendous ill luck, true, but that also meant fewer in-laws to interfere or quarrel with.  Colin was a junior partner in a mediocre law firm, clean cut and God-fearing.  He was a little older than she had hoped for; that being the worst thing about him.  He had not immediately told her about the family estate in the heart of New England he had recently inherited, perhaps concerned that she was a gold digger, yet this seemed a reasonable precaution to her.  She had not accepted his proposal for his money, but the additional security it provided was welcome.

            For Colin, the house had some value beyond childhood memories.  He had been raised there until he was nine, when his father whisked Colin and his mother away to New York City.  Life had been good at the Hardwick House, a remote, Victorian mansion in a magnificent state of upkeep; especially compared to a busy, loud and crowded New York City.  Twenty five years later, Colin was in a tight spot.  Despite relative success as a business lawyer, his lifestyle and some questionable investments had set his finances back.  Debts were crippling, nearly to the point of breaking.  The family estate came to him as an early surprise; the recent passing of an estranged uncle being the last in a string of unusual deaths.  The place was worth a fair chunk of change; at least, enough to pay his mounting debts and give him a fresh start.  Still, there was always a price, even for an unexpected gift.

            The plan was to spend Saturday night at the house in order to check it out.  Colin’s Uncle Cyril had been keeping the place as a summer residence.  Uncle Cyril had been carrying out some upkeep toward selling the place, so the property would keep them dry enough for a weekend.  They brought camping gear, just in case.

            “How long since your uncle stayed there?” Macy asked as they got underway.

            “Almost a year,” Colin said, sure he had told her before.

            “I still can’t believe it took so long for the will to go through,” she said, mostly to make conversation.  Colin had only told her about it a month ago.  She had been dying to see Colin’s childhood home ever since.

            “It was a pretty screwy will,” Colin said, playing along with the idle conversation.  “I think he probably didn’t want the place going to me.  He did everything except exclude me from the will.  If he had, there would be an auction right now.”  Cyril had willed his entire estate to a series of friends who turned out to have passed away or disappeared.  The will was clearly old; the old man had not expected to kick off so soon.  When it was clear that no one in the will was available to take it, Hardwick House passed to the next available family member.

            “You were kind of vague about his break with the family,” Macy went on.  “He didn’t get along with your dad, somehow?”

            “The reason I was vague is because I never had it explained to me, either,” Colin explained.  “No one talked about it, really.  What I know came in bits and pieces.  Mom and dad were already dead before I left law school, so there wasn’t a lot of adult discussion of family politics.  Who knows, they might never have told me, anyway.”

            “Your uncle was mad that your dad left the estate,” Macy probed.  “Seems like a weird thing to fight over.”

            Colin smiled.  He had wondered about the full connection to his own understanding of the house and Uncle Cyril’s rift with his father.  “It could be anything, I guess.  For all I know, dad left because of the fight.  The bits and pieces suggest Cyril felt dad owed it to my grandparents to stay.  I just don’t have enough information to say, really.”

            Macy smiled and put her hand Colin’s shoulder.  “You’re funny,” she said, almost giggling, “with your legal need to have it all evidenced out.  You don’t even want to try a few theories?”

            “Not really,” Colin said, really not caring about the details of an event that no longer mattered.

            “Okay,” she said, trying to find a new angle to keep the conversation going.  “What did your uncle do for a living?”

            “He was a building contractor,” Colin said.  “As far as I know, that was all he ever did.”

            Macy nodded.  “And did he have much money of his own?  He was keeping up a pretty expensive property for a few years.”

            “He was planning on selling it in a few years, according to the paperwork.  His contracting business didn’t make a ton of money, but he seemed to manage.  For all I know, he was selling family heirlooms to make the difference.  As it stands, I already sold his business to one of his senior employees to cover the legal costs related to the stupid will.  He was worth that much, at least.”

            “Hopefully he kept the plumbing up,” Macy said, looking to lighten things.  “I don’t really want to do my business in a pot all weekend.”

            “I think the place is livable, including plumbing,” Colin said, checking his blind spot as he pulled onto the interstate.  “A local caretaker was keeping the place up until a couple of weeks ago.  Another provision of the will.”

            “Why did he stop?” Macy asked.  A caretaker was news to her.

            “A short term contract provided for in the will,” Colin said.  “It’s part of why I wanted to see the place now.  If the place is good enough to sell, as is, I may hire him on again until a deal closes.”  He had already explained his intention to fix the house up, if needed, to maximize the price.

            “Would you ever consider keeping it?” she asked.  She had brought it up before, briefly, but never really discussed it beyond that.

            Colin smirked.  “Part of me wouldn’t mind.  The truth is that my life is based in the city.  The commute is almost manageable, except for the winters.  I couldn’t justify the place as a summer residence, considering what year round taxes and insurance would cost.  Besides, just keeping the place up would be a job.  There must be a dozen bedrooms alone.”

            Macy smiled again, suddenly feeling close to him.  “Maybe, when we finally stop waiting to do the deed,” she said, half serious, “we could work on filling those rooms.”  She had casually referenced their state of celibacy.  Macy was not altogether the most religious girl, however she had a strong desire to remain celibate until her wedding night; which was, for Colin, the only thing that mattered.

            Colin looked away to hide the look crossing his face, obvious sadness and regret.  When he turned back, smiling, she seemed not to have noticed.  “That’s a lot of rooms,” was all he said.

            The expressway gave way to a short run on a secondary highway before leading to a genuine side road.  The road was hilly and winding at stops, seeming to hug the landscape.  Irregular intervals of houses and farms quickly gave way to trees and brush.  For Macy, a true city girl, they were suddenly in a wilderness; and she was uncomfortable with it.  They had been fairly quiet for a while, and she needed the comfort of conversation.

            “You weren’t kidding about the place being in the middle of nowhere,” she said, hoping he would converse.

Even More Casserole

(The holiday season looms. My posting frequency may be erratic through the end of the year. It is so good to be my own boss on this. I will try for something different on the next post. There is such a thing as too much casserole)

The drive took us off the main highway and onto a secondary road until noon.  We were in the heart of farm country and the world suddenly seemed far away.  Mal took a side road for several minutes, coming to a place called Bhrycal Corners, with all of an independent gas station, family restaurant and antique shop to differentiate it from any other country crossroad.  Mal slowed and pulled into the gas station.

“This doesn’t look much like a meeting place,” I observed.

“No,” Mal said, getting out of the car.  “We could use some gas and more food, though.”

The meeting was clearly some time into the future.  I didn’t object.  After gassing the car, Mal parked and insisted we try the local cuisine.  The Quiet Corners Family Restaurant was true to its name, we were the only guests and it was not yet one o’clock.  The menu was limited but Mal found a way to order a feast.  An appetiser of cheesy garlic bread was followed with a hot turkey sandwich and an order of apple pie for desert.  I was hungry enough to order a similar quantity of food.

“It always makes me sad to see places like this,” she said while stirring the sugar into her coffee.  “The people work hard to build a business, even out in the boondocks, and it too often sits empty.  The owners don’t want to make a million dollars, they only want to make a decent living.  Sad.”

Her attempt at chit chat felt forced, awkward.  I didn’t care much for talking when I only wanted to find out more about why I was being called in, and what was wrong with Corbin.  Mal did not take the hint, or chose to ignore it.

“I hope places like this last forever,” Mal went on.  “It’s not fair that they go out of business and fail.  There must be a way to fix that, you know?”

“Places like this tend to fail because they are not properly planned or managed,” I said, anxious for the silence of our car trip.  “I could care less if they make it or not.  Not my problem.”

“Charming,” Mal said, flashing her smile for the first time in a while.  “You should write a motivational column or something.”

“I’m not feeling very chatty,” I grumbled.  “This was not how my day was supposed to go.”

“Ah, yes.  You were supposed to go back to your boss and make a delivery; a worthy use of your skills and responsible contribution to society.  Somehow, I am not bothered about disturbing your day.”

“You can spare me the crap about doing the world a favour,” I said, feeling resentful again.  “I did enough.  All I wanted was a full extraction, and they couldn’t do it, so I left.  It’s a free country, the last time I checked.”

“Then why didn’t you take a labour job?  Or anything other than crime?” Mal rose to the challenge.

“Because labour jobs that pay well don’t exist, and the pension the program offers doesn’t exist,” I shot back.  “And I lost too much time playing secret agent to jump back into a normal life”

“Let me get this straight,” she said, getting more agitated, “you want a pension for ten years of work?  Fuck!  How about a gold watch and a retirement party?  You can’t be that selfish.”

“Oh, but I can.”

“You would be dead if it weren’t for Corbin,” she said, crossing into sensitive territory.  “The only reason you can handle this insane life of yours is because of him, too.  You know how he is, how do you think he feels about your career choice after what he gave you?”

I was pissed off by this point.  “I got over that a while back.  Corbin saved my life, and I can only thank him for it, but I didn’t sign up to be a slave.  I’m not only one to leave the program, either.”  The truth went deeper than this, really, but I just wanted to stop talking about it.  Mal had opposed my leaving from the moment I first mentioned it, before I chose a criminal life.

“Don’t give me that bull shit!” she kept on going.  “Paul became a police officer and Nancy got an office job.”

“Listen, Mal,” I said, working very hard to keep my voice down, “I just don’t give a shit.  I haven’t given a shit for while.  So how about not talking about it?”

Our server saved me from more distress with the prompt arrival of our garlic bread.  I engaged in a brief, and awkward, conversation with the woman.  She was a chubby lady in her early fifties with pleasant features and work-worn hands.  Mal’s earlier point about the plight of little businesses like this hit me, just a little, when I looked at the woman.  She was polite, and friendly, but clearly wanted to leave our table.  Mal was bubbling over, searing anger obvious in her eyes; stoked hotter as I obviously extended a meaningless conversation with our server.

Mal leaned in after the server was out of earshot, looking like pure venom.  “You don’t want to fucking talk?” she hissed.  “Fine.  Then you can save it for the meeting because I’m done talking, too.”

“That’s the best thing you’ve said since you showed up,” I said, not contented to let her off too easily.

“Fuck you,” she responded.

Our meal was very ordinary, other than being too salty.  True to her word, Mal not only stayed quiet but she never once looked at me.  She even told the server that I would be paying.  I had clearly struck a nerve.

The rest of the drive took us into a remote area of southern Ontario; even the farming seemed to peter out.  At one point, it was clear that Mal was doubling back and circling a certain area to check if we were being followed.  Some of the roads we took were hard on the car, not being much better than pairs of ruts in the bush.  The car was a right-off, anyway, as Mal had put out several cigarettes on the dash since lunch.  It was nearly dusk when she finally turned down a particularly rough track.  The overgrown track jostled us in the car, the undercarriage taking a beating as branches scratched the exterior.  Mal drove on with a satisfied look on her face as the car took a beating.  When the bush around us cleared, we were at the edge of cliff.  Mal stopped the car and got out.  I had a bad feeling about her intentions toward the car and got out quickly.  As expected, Mal gave the car a shove over the edge, ending about fifty feet below and into watery grave.

She didn’t even look back as she headed into the surrounding woods.  I had one final temptation to run for it before I followed her in.  She kept a quick pace, not quite jogging, through the woods until we broke into a field dotted with patches of bush.  It felt like an abandoned farm area, dotted with stones, thistles and trees.  In the early twilight, it felt very remote, as if the world outside didn’t exist.

Our path kept us in the direction of a distant barn.  The closer we got, the clearer it was that the place was nearly a ruin.  It was deathly quiet, other than the crickets and occasional bird chirping.  When we were about fifty feet from the barn, Mal slowed her pace and changed her course to circle around.  I followed carefully, it being obvious that we had reached the meeting place.  A complete circle later, we went toward the barn.  The door hung open enough to slip through; the outside twilight just barely illuminating the interior through the damaged roof and walls.  I immediately noted the smells of gun oil, perspiration and fabric.  Years of living a dangerous life made me want to reach for my weapon, which might have been fatal in the company I was meeting with.

A tiny light, the same colour made by fireflies, flashed before us in some unknown, coded pattern.  I was familiar with this type of coded communication, only the code had probably changed many times since I had last used it.  Mal signaled back with a penlight of her own, the firefly colour matching.  We moved forward to what looked like a tent, turning out to be an ancient tractor under a tarp.  Beneath the tractor was a trap door to a cramped basement below.  The basement was only just high enough to stand straight in.  The lights were dim, but I recognised everyone there.  Palmer, Smith, Jarredsson and several others I knew too well.  Good, upstanding members of the program.  In all, there were a dozen of them; I estimated another two or three in the barn above us.  I was acknowledged with a combination of silent nods and a variety of mumbled greetings; none of it felt terribly friendly.

More Casserole

(Just adding a bit more to the last post here. Enjoy)

     I had parked in an alley between a hardware store and a junk shop.  When I reached the car, Mallory was already behind the wheel, smiling mischievously and certainly pleased with herself.

     “Hop in,” she said through the open window, before I could speak, “I’m driving.”

     “Like hell you are,” I snapped.  “Get out.”

     “Listen, Peters,” she said, smirking.  “If you really want to make a scene on a quiet, northern morning, after seriously fucking up a pair of local gangsters, go for it.  Otherwise, I’m driving.”

     She had me, and knew it.  The last thing I could afford was unwanted attention.  Besides, a physical fight between the two of us would be more than noticeable.

     I got in and buckled up, instructing Mal to do the same.  “You already look like a freak,” I told her, “so we won’t be giving the police any more reasons to stop us today.”

     “Fine,” she said, and laughed.  She started the car out of town, driving by Foundation Street.  Two cruisers had already arrived, cherries blazing and sirens silent.

     “They sure took their time,” she commented.

     “For a town like this, they did alright,” I said.  “No gunshots or screaming reported.  They were like lightning.”

     We drove in silence for a while.  Mal kept us heading to the main roads out of town while I nervously tried to appreciate the rural scenery.  I was content to stay quiet; I didn’t want to know why she was here.  Before we reached the last turnoff to the major highway, she pulled into a coffee shop drive thru.

     “We’re barely twenty minutes out of town,” I spoke up.  “This is a bad idea.”

     “I’m hungry now,” Mal said, as if I had not spoken.  “And we were already seen by several people.  You must be peckish, too, unless you stuffed yourself this morning.”

     A dozen doughnuts and two coffees with three sugars were ordered.  Mal smiled at the disinterested clerk like we were out for a Sunday drive.  She hit the highway and set the cruise at one twenty.  She started packing down the doughnuts.

     “Sure you don’t want one?” she asked after the sixth one disappeared.  “They aren’t the best, but I’ve had a lot worse.”

     “I’m fine.  Just keep your eyes on the road.”  The coffee just tasted like sugar.  The calorie value was the only thing that mattered.

     Mallory left two in the box for me.  I would be hungry soon and she knew it.

     “You know,” she continued, sipping her coffee, “if I ever revert to normal I think I’m going to let myself go.  I couldn’t manage a diet if I tried.  Food is just too good, you know, especially the crap stuff.  How could I live on healthy food?”  She paused to light a cigarette.

     “This is a rental,” I spoke harshly.

     She looked at me with a smile, cigarette hanging from her lips.  She took a few insolent puffs before stubbing it out on the dash.  “There,” she challenged.  “Happy now?”

     I rubbed my temples.  I had forgotten how difficult Mal could be when she wanted to.  I settled myself enough to accept two important facts: Mal was here to tell me something and I probably didn’t want to know it.  The rest were details.  The sooner I got this out of the way, the more likely she was to go away.

     “Okay,” I spoke calmly, rubbing the frustration from my temples, “what is it?  Why did you come here?”

     “Long story,” she said, a hint of seriousness creeping in.  “It’s a good thing we have time.  There is a crisis, but not the usual kind.  This one affects us directly.  The timing of it sucks, too, so all the rogues are being called in.”

     “This sounds awfully familiar, Mal.  Am I going to get the usual lines about saving the world and living up to my potential?”  These were the type of lines they fed you, making it feel like a superhero moment when they needed your skills in action.  It was rarely a minor intervention or casual job; high pressure was the intended motivator, as though it were enticing.

     “Except this is the real deal,” Mal answered, a distant look on her face spooking me at the same time.  “I’m not shitting you in any way.”

     “You went through all this trouble,” I said, ready to call her bluff, “so I’ll nibble at the bait.  Let’s hear it.”

     Mal pursed her lips slightly before speaking.  “The Program, our cooperative arrangement with the federal security agencies, and even our own necks are in deep trouble.  Technically, it affects us all, which is why they are calling everyone in.”

     “What kind of threat are we talking about?”

     “I’m not supposed to give you any more than I already have,” Mal sighed.  “Unfortunately, you are as predictable as hell and I know you’ll fight me the whole way if I don’t do better.  So here is the teaser: the government is making moves to eliminate the program and us with it.”

     “That talk was in the wind even before I left,” I countered.  “Corbin has always handled that end, anyway.  You have to do better than that.”

     “Corbin is…”  The word caught in her throat, her tone somber.  “…is not well.”  She popped another cigarette into her mouth and lit it.  This time I said nothing.  She took a long drag and continued.

     “I won’t go into much more detail, Peters.  The information about our elimination came to us accidentally.  There is more to it, of course.  All I can say is that the intelligence we have right now is extremely legit.”

     “What is wrong with Corbin?” I asked abruptly.

“You already know more than you should,” she snapped back.  “Just go with this for once, will you?”

I wasn’t feeling like going back.  It was a part of my life that I remembered too well and despised too much.  Still, Corbin was Corbin.  He was something of a father figure to the members of the program.  In most cases, he had either saved our lives or made them worth living.  It was unlikely that Mal would use his health as a ploy to bring me in, not like this.  I was stuck, and however much I hated it, I knew it.

“Fine,” I said, angrier than intended, “I will go.”

“Good.”

“Where exactly is this meeting?” I asked, more gently.

“Not far, actually,” she said.  “Just enjoy the drive.”

This was not likely to happen.  I had too much to think about to just enjoy a drive to an unknown place, to meet people I would rather avoid and see a man I cared about in a state of illness.  My plans for an easy fortune and a quiet retirement seemed gone already.  What the hell could I do?  Even if I could ditch Mal, with violence or not, neither of which were foregone conclusions, where would I go?  Where could I hide that they wouldn’t find me, eventually?  And then, how would I feel about abandoning Corbin when he might need me?  It was not worth thinking about.  I reclined the seat slightly and reached for the remaining doughnuts.  I had a feeling I would need the calories.

To Be Named Later, or The Casserole

(This is the beginning of a much longer story. Call it very near future. Loosely speaking, it is a spy/underworld/perhaps-alternate-timeline story with all sorts of science fiction bits and pieces thrown in. A casserole of fun stuff. It is definitely gritty, not lacking in violence, and involves characters with questionable ethics. It is also unfinished, unedited and untitled, but I work on it between other things.)

               The downtown had the usual, dingy, rundown look of every small, northern town I had ever seen.  Patchy attempts to improve the visual rot only made it worse.  The waterfront was probably the only decent place in the downtown core, though the rot was seeping into it, as well.  The place was dead and just hadn’t noticed; a zombie town.

               I strolled to the docks, discovering the harbour area was smaller than it looked from a distance.   Really, it was a parking lot set next to a walkway along the water, with a restaurant on one side and a very industrial looking complex on the other.  Charming.

               If autumn had an upside, it was in being cold enough to keep riff-raff from sleeping outside during the night.  I had seen two distant joggers earlier but the place was otherwise deserted.  I continued along the larger of two main docks, figuring it was as good a place as any to do some thinking while I waited.  A car sped past in the distance, an ancient hatchback, rotting away like the town, and disappeared into a side street.  As quickly as that, I was alone.

               The waterfront was on a bay off the great lake.  The water was icy still and dark; the predawn light seemed to cast shadows on everything, and those shadows seemed to collect in the water.  It had a peaceful quality, all the same.  I kept my back to the town, enjoying the view across the bay, a mostly undeveloped area that gave an illusion of purity.

               Time passed and I fell into a deep, thoughtful state, almost a trance, aware of my surroundings yet deep within my own mind.  There was no ritualistic or spiritual element to it.  I had learned to do it as a boy and got into the habit.  The opportunity was sometimes scarce, though I never lost the knack.  It was like being awake and dreaming at the same time.  Thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations swirled in a gentle maelstrom; they crossed, merged and sometimes settled with each other, creating a kaleidoscope vision of my mind.  I had found that the longer I was able to hold myself in this state, the more likely it was for the elements to generate the semblance of a message, or concept, or something meaningful.  It had a dreamlike quality, without the random, shifting and confusing nonsense.  The maelstrom had inertia, yet I could guide it along with gentle pressure; I always envisioned it as the same sort of pressure a tugboat exerted on a large ship.  The trick to holding the state and manipulating the storm was in not putting too much or too little pressure; too much pressure caused the elements of the maelstrom to weaken and fade, eventually breaking it; too little pressure made the intensity strong, but made it more difficult to find guidance from the mess.

               Minor distractions were another weak spot.  The solitude and tranquility made it easy to form the whirlwind; the increasing wakefulness of the town, rotted and sluggish as it was, wore down my focus.  It was difficult to estimate the passage of time, just like in a dream, so I was unsure of it when the final straw fell.  The light suggested that the sun had been up for a little while.

               “Fine morning,” a voice offered, sounding old, attempting to engage me in conversation.  My maelstrom collapsed into itself and disappeared, a fading memory in an instant.  I turned to the old voice, extending my hand to it.  Energy surged through me, nearly unbidden.  An elderly man, looking shocked at my quick, aggressive motion, stood a few feet away.  He had been right behind me.  The flicker of rage I felt at his interruption spiraled away in time for me to collect myself.  I had wanted to harm him for his lack of manners and inconvenient presence but it would do no good; I had my own business to attend to, and it would not serve to draw attention to myself.

               The man was a little scared, judging by his reaction.  I guessed his age at sixty.  He wore tan slacks, a plaid shirt and a windbreaker.  Just an old man with a big mouth, taking a morning walk because he had nothing better to do.  “Whoa,” he said, holding up his hands defensively.  “I didn’t mean to –“

               “Shut up,” I snapped, venting my ebbing anger at him without attempting to soften my words.  “You shouldn’t sneak around and surprise people like that.  It could go badly for you.”  I lowered my arm and walked away.  The old man simply stood there, too frightened to speak.

               Downtown closed around me before I was a block in.  It was a new town but a familiar place.  I had worked the central northern beat for Porter long enough to recognise the same old thing in a different place.  I had studied the map enough to know where I was going in this new piss hole.  My dawdling was wasted, anyway.  The maelstrom had yielded nothing, even before I lost it.  Something was not right in this place, only I could not place it.  Normally, I would have come away with something.

               I was in a pissy mood when I arrived, three blocks later, at 119 Foundation Street.  The Pawn Prince was a dismal sight; it was another relic, only brightened the slightest with a cheery, white banner proclaiming Cash for Gold in red letters.  The building had a second floor of apartments that merged with the adjacent buildings.  The entrance to the 119 apartments was a heavily abused wooden door to the right of the pawn shop.  The door handle had broken off, probably years earlier, and been replaced with a small length of rope.  It was already open a crack, which made it a bit more convenient for me.  The stairs were solid but filthy.  I turned left at the top of the stairs and made my way down the hall.  The lighting was dim, likely a by-product of cheap, low wattage bulbs and never-cleaned light fixtures.  The smell of stale cigarette, pot and beer almost masked the undercurrent of stale mop water, garbage and urine.  If it had been unexpected, I might have been thrown off.

               As it was, I felt my energy flow through me, accumulating like a charge.  It was doubtful I would need a lot, but apartment 2C had to know a visit was coming; and it was tough to say what countermeasures there would be.  The door to 2C was open, just slightly.

               I let my energy level build a bit more before I made my move.  A hard kick flung the door wide open, exposing a smoky room within.  Two men jumped up from a moldy couch, knocking over a coffee table in front of them; they both looked high as kites, one of them made a clumsy move for something inside his belt.  I unleashed a blast of energy that hit him square in the chest, knocking him through the wall; heavy bruises, broken ribs and a mild concussion were guaranteed, unless he was unlucky and I had collapsed his lungs and damaged his spine.  It didn’t matter.  The second man was the subject of my visit, and he was already on his knees and in shock.

               I kept a solid reserve of energy at the ready.  Something still felt wrong.  A quick check revealed no other guests in 2C.  Bobby O’Mara was on his knees begging me not to kill him.  Someone in a neighbouring apartment was hollering about keeping the noise down.

               “For Christ’s sake, shut the fuck up,” I said, closing the apartment door.  “I don’t have much time for this, so pay fucking attention.  You should know better than to disrespect Porter the way you have.  You are way behind this year and you don’t even bother to call last month when you pay nothing.  That’s not cool, Bobby.  So this…”  My attention trailed off as I felt something familiar, something dangerously familiar, from behind me.  Someone was building up their energy and they were damn close.  Instinct took over and I formed my energy into a shield, encasing me in a protective cocoon.  A blast zipped past me and struck Bobby O’Mara squarely in the head, pulping it in one strike.

               I wheeled around, stirring up energy as fast as I could for a fight.  Standing at the back of the room was Mallory Stelton, an old associate who I thought I was finished with years ago.  She had changed her look, but was recognisable despite the Goth-ish wardrobe and makeup.  “What the hell, Mal?” was all I could think to say.

               “Nice to see you, Peters,” she said with a grin.  I had not dropped the shield.  Mallory was releasing her energy passively as she strolled forward.

               “Why are you here?” I asked bluntly.  “This bullshit is going to make things awkward for me back in the city.”

               “When did you get so sloppy?” she asked back.  “I couldn’t have got this close to you before without getting noticed.”

               “Fuck,” I growled, partly at Mal, partly at the mess in front of me.  It would take some explaining to keep Porter off my ass.

               “So,” Mal said, getting up and lighting a cigarette, “you are some sort of hit man, or something like that?”

               “Collections, actually,” I said, realising there would be no easy out.  I began a quick search of the place in the hopes I could find enough cash or dope to mitigate the screw up.

               “What a waste,” Mal said.  She was clearly amused by my frantic search.  Her nonchalant attitude had not changed in the years since I last saw her.

               “Is there something you want from me?” I asked, distracted by my search.  “This is a long way from Montreal, isn’t it?”

               “You always were a suspicious one,” she said with a smirk, watching me rifle through a putrid bathroom.  “Can’t a girl just stop by and say hello?”

               “Probably better you don’t tell me,” I responded, pushing by her and into the kitchen.  All I really wanted was to find a giant stash of dope, get out before the authorities arrived and ditch Mallory.  The last part would be the trickiest; she wasn’t here by chance.

               “Listen, tough guy,” she said, still toying with me, “why don’t we have a little chat?  There has got to be a place that serves coffee around here.”

               “Not interested,” I said without a blink.  I had left the world she belonged to, and that had taken some doing.  I had been left alone for some time, yet Mallory was a sign that world wanted me back.

               “Come on.  What is the rush?  One cup of coffee.”

               “The rush is,” I growled as I headed from the fruitless kitchen to the bedroom, “that I am supposed to have supper with my boss today.  If not, I owe him an advance phone call.”

               “Right,” she chuckled, “the collections thing.  You will be delivering from this run.”  She paused and finished her cigarette.  “Well, the city isn’t more than a couple of hours and it is morning.  That leaves time for a coffee, or do I have that wrong?”

               The fellow I had knocked through the wall was breathing.  He had a badly broken arm and numerous lesser injuries.  He didn’t look much like hired muscle.  A quick search of him produced a knife, about five thousand in cash and fifty dollars in weed.  It was chump change, in the big picture, but covered most of what O’Mara owed.  It also suggested he was here to buy, which meant there was another five grand in product in the apartment.  I was willing to press my luck by extending the search.  An even ten Gs would cover the debt, plus a little for the hassle.  Porter wouldn’t be happy; but he would understand a situation gone wrong.  It happened, from time to time, and life would go on.

               “Time is money, Mal,” I said, tearing the room apart.  “So if you have something to say, say it.  I am out of here soon.”

               She was uncharacteristically quiet.  I found a very sturdy little end table; heavy oak, bolted together like it was made to survive a bomb blast and locked tight.  I drew up a bit of energy, which got Mallory’s attention.  Fine work like this was not my forte, and I was distracted, so my attempt to blow the lock resulted in smashing up the entire thing.  The contents spilled out, mostly unharmed: bags of pills, powder and a bit of cash.  I grabbed it up and stuffed it into my jacket; big, inside pockets were gold in the collections business.

               “Time’s up,” I said, taking my turn to be funny.  “I got what I…”

               Mallory was gone.  It was hard to sense if she was still nearby or not.  Something was definitely going on and I didn’t like it in the least.  Keeping myself in the moment, I went for the window.  The same neighbour who hollered about the noise was hollering again, and this was the type of place that attracted police attention.  The window had a rusting fire escape to a partly overgrown parking area below.  I made my way down and got moving.  Once I was sure my trail was clear, I only needed to get back to the car; then I was home free.

Hannox, Chapter 2

Link to Chapter 1

(More cyberpunk. I want to let the story get moving a little before wandering around in the coming weeks. If you are wondering about the pace, consider this a book excerpt)

It was a little early but his contact would be up.  He didn’t go there enough to really worry; still, varying the times of day he made his visits was good form.  He stopped by a local vendor and made a couple of insignificant purchases; a bottle of water and a nutrient bar.  From there, he went almost directly to his destination.

     The trip almost took him to the outer rim of the city.  The middle rim degraded steadily as he progressed outward, further from the city core and inner rim.  His apartment was situated in the middle rim, but far enough from the outer rim to be quite nice.  The farther from the middle of the city the more run down and neglected everything became.  The general repair of buildings and streets were the easiest signs to notice; after these, more graffiti, general vandalism and litter were big signs of troubled areas.  The outer rim was far worse.  Business very rarely took him out so far, and Hannox was thankful for that.

     He circled the building once, looking for potential problems or signs of trouble, before parking out front.  The place hadn’t changed much over the years.  Max’s was a fairly popular bar, considering the proximity to the outer rim.  Age had not been kind to the building, inside and out, but the relative popularity held.  It had just turned 1040 when Hannox approached the door and pressed the buzzer.  Nothing happened at the bar until after 1200, at earliest.

     It was nearly three minutes before he got a response.  The exterior speaker crackled to life with the less-than-joyous voice of the proprietor: Max.

     “What the fuck do you want so early?” Max blurted out.

     “I don’t know, old man, how about a martini?” Hannox shot back.

     “This is a shitty time.  Why don’t you come back later?”

     “I hate this place during business hours,” Hannox said, trying not to smile.  Max was a crusty old fuck, but proud of his bar.  It was a front, like Hannox’s security company.  The difference was that Hannox took no special pride in the business itself; his pride in the business was its quality as a front.

     “Too fuckin’ bad,” Max returned; a little bit of hurt pride showing through, despite the half-friendly nature of the exchange.   “The place ain’t any prettier before I open, either.”

     “Then I’ll close my eyes,” Hannox said.

     “Ah, fuck,” Max growled.  Hannox could tell, even through the crackling speaker, he was in.  The automatic door slid open and Hannox stepped into the quaint interior of Max’s.

     The place smelled of old tobacco smoke, with a hint of cleaning fluids.  It had the look of a pre-Shift establishment, even if there were some oddities.  There was a lot of wood, or synthetic wood, making up the furnishings and panelling.  The bar had a mirrored back wall, polished obsidian top and brass rail; pool tables, dart boards and dimmed lighting added to the ambiance.

     Max was behind the bar, as usual.  He always seemed a bit bigger when he stood back there, even though he was a fairly small guy.  By appearance, he was in his middle sixties, though Hannox suspected he might have been older; the few wisps of hair that clung to his head were pure white and he was quite wrinkled.  Max was far from ready for his day, sporting a dirty tee shirt and plaid, flannel pants.  He looked a bit angrier than usual.  Contributing to his angry look was his false eye, a retro hack-job that Max was apparently attached to.  It was a cylindrical socket that stuck out of his face, where his right eye had been, capped with a blue lens.  The lens glowed with a faint light, occasionally flickering and threatening to wink out.  Max always refused to discuss it, but the rumour was he lost the eye in a fight, years ago, and got the artificial one from a low-tech street med; the price being the big consideration.  Despite the eye’s ongoing glitches and Max’s improved finances, he stubbornly refused to upgrade or replace the terrible thing.  Worse, it made him look that much angrier.

     “You got shitty timing, Hannox,” Max said, no happier than before.

     “Yeah, and a busy schedule,” Hannox said with a smile.  “Residential and commercial security is a fast-paced and growing industry, you know.”

     “It’s a shitty fucking business,” Max grumbled.  “You should’ve opened a pet shop or something.”

     “That would make it a lot harder to explain house calls.”  On paper, Max had purchased a security system with a full maintenance package.  It was an easy way to justify the sporadic visits.

     “Maybe you could deliver shit like parrots and snakes?  Specialty shit for rich fucks,” Max said, smirking.  “How about that?”

     Hannox liked Max.  The old man was a zero-bullshit character, and a dying breed; one of the few people in the business he could relate to.  It was highly likely that Max was far more connected than anyone knew.  In the contract killing business, he was an independent distribution contact.  There were still a few, like him, doing business in person, but they were rare.  The underworld of independent killing had changed over the years, with more and more business conducted over the network.  According to Max, the go-between job had bounced between digital and personal contact over the years, usually taking the path of least resistance with respect to the authorities.  Hannox preferred the personal touch, even if it added complicating elements not present on the network.

     “I’ll think about it,” Hannox laughed.  “Anyway, you called me awfully early, so you must have something good.”

     “Oh, yeah,” Max said, like he had forgot about it.  “Another shitty thing that woke me up.”  He shot Hannox a dirty look, complete with a flicker of light from the fake eye.  “I got a call on a job, a fuckin’ monster and a half.  A hell of a payoff, by the sounds of it, but the details are pretty slim.  Sound like something you want a shot at?”

     Hannox was not used to this approach.  Sometimes, if the contract was sensitive, certain details were kept secret until the deal was accepted.  Usually, these details weren’t as foggy as this, and Max wasn’t one to dick around with offers and information; after all, he got a small cut for completed jobs.

     “Max, I know it’s early, and I woke you up, but get serious here,” Hannox said.

     Max gave him an odd look and sighed.  “Sit down, Hannox.”

     Hannox almost felt like arguing, but decided to see what the old man was up to.  He sat down at the bar while Max poured them coffee.  Max’s drinks were standard fare, but his coffee was strong and bitter.  Max always added extra cream to shut the coffee critic up.

     Max sat down across from Hannox, giving him the same, odd look.

     “Alright, Max,” Hannox said, growing impatient, “spit it out.  You’re getting freaky.”

     “Listen, Hannox,” Max said, sounding serious and calm.  “I forget you’re half a kid, so I’ll let you in on the kind of deal this is, unless you’re too good for that?”

     “You have my attention,” Hannox said.

     “Good, now shut up until I’m done; it’ll go faster, that way.  I don’t get business at calls at seven in the fucking morning, just so you know.  When I get a call like I got this morning, it’s not small potatoes.  You won’t be doing some small-time fuck for ten or twenty thou; and it won’t even be some medium-time fuck for a quarter mil.  I ain’t got a call like this for, hell, more than ten years.”

     “So, what are we talking about, then?  A big-time job for a mil?”  Hannox was genuinely intrigued.  Max was never this serious with him, unless he was pissed off.

     “I doubt it will be that low,” Max said, slurping his coffee with a wince.  “No, this one will be big; an absolute fucking monster of a job.”

     “But you have no details, yet,” Hannox said.  “How can you be so sure?”

     “I just know,” Max said, a displeased edge creeping into his tone.  “The last time I got a weird one like this, shit, it was a fucking jackpot.  Money’s changed a little, since then, but that fucking shit paid a couple million.”

     Hannox was starting to wonder if Max hadn’t lost it, somehow.  A few million creds for a job was unthinkable money; enough to retire on, if you didn’t live a flashy life.  What kind of job paid that kind of money?

     “I don’t want to sound like an asshole, Max,” Hannox said, “but why would a job pay that much with no details?  There must be a catch?”

     “I’m guessing the details are given to you, private-like, before you accept.  Then, you say yes or no.  There are probably two catches.  The job is probably a doozy, a major-ass player or something.  The second catch is that once you know who the target is, even if you turn down the job, you’re on a list until the dust settles.  It’s probably not the best list to be on.”

     “Wait a minute,” Hannox said, suddenly concerned.  “This contract is through standard channels, right?”

     “Before you get your balls in a knot, just fucking listen, okay?” Max piped up, finally sounding angry again.  “It’s on the level, mostly, but deals like this have exceptions.  You can’t expect it not to, anyway, even in this business.  The reason they have to know who sees the name is to avoid word getting back.  Sometimes, the price for squealing to the target is worth more than the contract, and easier to get away with.  By knowing who sees the name, they can backtrack.”

     Hannox sat back, tapping his thumb on the handle of his coffee mug.  “Okay,” he said, still running things through his head.  “Why would you offer this to me?  What makes you think this type of job is even in my league?”

     Max gave a rare smile.  “Why?  Because you’re hungry for the money, and you’ve got guts.  I don’t think you’ve ever turned down a job from me, even tricky ones.”

     “And you think I can pull it off?”  Hannox asked.

     “I have no idea,” Max said.  “I’ll never know who the target is, anyway.  Like I said, money and guts is always a solid bet.”

     “So, if you don’t have anybody else looking into this, I’m the best gun on your list,” Hannox mused out loud.  “You don’t get a cut if the contract isn’t completed, so you wouldn’t send your second choice.”

     “Those are some long shot ideas, if I ever heard any,” Max snorted.  “Listen, I got some slick-ass fucking guys on my list, as you put it; guys that are high-powered, psycho death machines that could fuck up any target you point them at.  If you were their target, you’d be royally fucked.”  Max took a swig of coffee and went on, Hannox was content to listen.  “Thing is this: you may not be the best I’ve got, but you’re the best shot to pull off a job like this.  Sorry to bust your bubble.”

     “So, if I’m interested, what then?”  The idea of being put on a list of has seen the name of target was not appealing, but equal parts curiosity and interest made him ask.

     “I can’t say exactly, but I make a call and follow instructions from there.  Chances are you get a name and basic terms offered to you.  You probably won’t get much time to decide, after that, so be ready to make it quick.”

     “This sounds pretty fucked to me, Max,” Hannox said.  “I don’t like working outside of the standard system.  What you’re saying sounds risky.  I haven’t kept a low profile for nothing.”

     “Deals this big are always fucked,” Max said.  “The pay is about more than the job, it’s the whole ball of shit you deal with.  It’s up to you.”

     “How long do I have to let you know?”

     “I can’t wait long,” Max said.  “This offer is probably out to a few other guys, right now.  If I don’t make contact in a few hours, someone else will have the job.  You want another coffee?”

     Hannox looked at his empty cup, not realising he’d finished.  “No, one was enough, thanks.”

     “You don’t want the job, do you?” Max said, taking both their mugs to the cleaning unit.

     “The way you acted when I got here makes me think you don’t want it, either,” Hannox said.

     “You woke me up,” Max said, turning back to Hannox and looking him square in the eye.  “Besides, if I didn’t want the fucking job, I never would have offered it.  It doesn’t mean shit to me, one way or the other.  You’re a reliable guy, so I’d rather not toss you into a deathtrap contract, if that means anything to you.  I think you like your safe little contracts and comfortable life too much to take the job.”

     “You’re dead right, Max, you old bastard,” Hannox said, standing up.  “My gut reaction says this job is trouble waiting to happen.  I’ve worked too hard to jump on thin ice.  I assume you don’t have anything else, right?”

     “Nope,” Max said, turning back to the cleaning unit and replacing the mugs under the bar.  “That’s been the first thing to happen in over a week.  Anything else, chickenshit?”

     “I’m good, Max,” Hannox said with a smile.  “I’ll see myself out.”

     “Good enough, maybe I can catch some sleep, now,” Max growled.  “Call me if you grow a pair in the next few hours.”

     “Screw you, too, Max,” Hannox said, as he stepped out the door.

Hannox, Chapter 1

(After what feels like too little thought, I am going to post up some chapters of a long, long story I wrapped up several years ago.  These will be put up, here and there, just because.  It is future science fiction, cyberpunk flavour)

Hannox could have sworn his morning alarm was louder than usual.  He didn’t recall adjusting the volume, but the thing chirped at him with gusto.

     “Alarm stop,” he said, being intentionally loud; there was no point in having the voice system miss his command.  He lay there for a few moments, trying to shake his fatigue.  The wall display showed the time at 0901.  He didn’t have much to do, but he never let himself get up later than 0900.  It was good to stay busy, if only to keep up the front.

     “Home system, voice activate command,” he said, exaggerating his enunciation for the program.  At least, he could stay in bed for long enough to check messages.

     “Home system responding.  Security code, please,” his ancient, home network responded through the wall speakers.

     “Security code, alpha 4-6-7-2-9 epsilon hummingbird, end code.”  He spoke back to the bedroom receiver, planted in the ceiling.

     “Home system activated.  Good morning, Gerald.”

     “Good morning, program,” Hannox replied.  The good morning bit was, in fact, the third layer of security for the program.  Voice pattern recognition and the basic code could be worked around, but the specific reply to the program greeting would be far harder to figure out.  The system was designed to be an all-purpose, home assistance aid.  It was intended as your message taker, home security, network facilitator, file storage, door opener, etc, etc.  The original launch for the product, Allhome, was nearly two hundred years ago, and product support ended twenty years later.  Allhome was the flagship product of the Home Tech Corporation; they released a few upgrades and some parallel products, but the failure of Allhome was the end of them.  Now, a full-blown Allhome installation was impossibly rare; as far as he knew, Hannox might have the only one in operation.  The approach was security through obscurity.

     “List new voice messages,” Hannox commanded.  He was already sitting up, despite his early intent to keep resting.

     “One new voice message.  Today.  0734.  Maxwell Henderson.  Two seconds.

     Hannox knew what that was about.  There was no need to actually check the message.

     “Delete new voice messages,” Hannox said.

     “New voice messages deleted.

     “Activate agenda,” he kept on.

     “Agenda activated.”

     “List entries, current day,” Hannox ordered.  The agenda was more of a backup, really; it was rare that he forgot about anything.

     “Entry one.  General reminder to review account statement activity…”  The program paused to allow him to modify or delete the entry.  He let it keep going.

     “Entry two.  1045.  Follow up with price quotation at 6978 Filnom Street, Middle Rim…”

     “Expand entry two,” Hannox commanded.  It was an old quote, and he was sure it would amount to nothing, but keeping active with the business was important.  After all, a front was a front.  Hannox couldn’t remember the specifics of the quote; the agenda entry would have the basics he needed to remind him.

     “Entry two expanded.  Price quote for Tyton Star 905x.  Full installation, with and without service.  Two bedroom bungalow, city lot, no interest in package upgrades, no interest in alternate systems.  Original quote of 23,000 credits, five percent discount not offered.  Aldo and Melissa Whitman, retired corpers, middle sixties, sole occupants.  End of entry two…

     The quote was over a month old, meaning it was practically dead in the water.  Better for them, really; Tyton Star was a low-end brand of systems that made a business of renaming obsolete tech to make it sound impressive.  The markup wasn’t ridiculous, but still on the high side.  Aldo had been focussed on a low-cost option, even though he could probably have afforded much better.  Guys like that were more interested in winning the price negotiation than getting value.  Usually, they would bite when the price dropped enough to brag to their friends.  Considering the sale was going cold, five percent was a last ditch offer to close the deal.  The listed price was 23,500, but Hannox always knocked off five hundred for first time customers.  The five percent figure was explained as a Tyton Star rebate that would only be available for a few days.  Even with five percent off, the system still made reasonable money.  Hannox was fairly certain the Whitmans would pass on the offer.  They had either purchased a competing product or decided to stick with a non-automated security system.

     “Entry three.  1400.  Contact Winston.  Discuss apartment maintenance…

     Which was Winston’s way of doing house calls without suspicion.  His real business was arms and ammunition.  Hannox had a Magnus 1400 rifle that used a rare type of ammo; Winston was the only reliable supplier that Hannox knew.  His supply of ammunition for the Magnus was fine, but he planned on spending some range time with it in the coming weeks, so a top up was in order.

     “End of entries.

     “De-activate agenda.  Exit home system.”

     “Home system exiting.  Have a nice day.

     “You, too,” Hannox said.  It was another security prompt for the system.  The security portion of the program had a ton of features that were set to notify him automatically, so there was no point in looking into the security log.  His apartment was in a decent area of the middle rim and there had never been a serious security problem.

     The time was almost 1000 before Hannox finished washing up and eating.  The joy of running a security sales and consulting business as a front was lots of easily-explained down time.  The 1045 call to Whitman was flexible, so there was plenty of time for the real job.  A trip to see his main contact was in order, even if it was a little early.

     The apartment took up the entire second floor of a two story building; the downstairs occupant, a retired accounting executive, was quiet and inconspicuous.  Hannox had thoroughly checked his background after he moved in.  The building was owned by Hamitomi Corporation’s property holdings division.  They owned a lot of buildings in the middle rim.  The choice of a Hamitomi building was intentional; it meant he had no specific superintendent.  His unit was just a number, in a large list of numbers.  The yearly inspections were a farce, a double check that the building was still standing and in good order.  Hannox had made a few interior modifications that weren’t on the books, and though they were technically allowed in his rental agreement, he preferred to keep them to himself.  In six years, he made sure that any repairs and maintenance were done without the knowledge of Hamitomi; and he was sure they didn’t mind.

     The building had an attached garage that was exclusive to him.  The other tenant didn’t own a vehicle, which was perfect.  The garage had also been slightly modified to improve security.  Hannox entered a complex code into the security lock and confirmed with his voice signature.  The lock requested confirmation of the code, and Hannox entered the same code with two characters transposed, opening the lock.

     The car was an older model Honda-Tirudachi 1100 series.  They were reliable, had great longevity, and remained common enough to blend in with traffic.  Like so much else, Hannox had made changes to the car.  The 1100 series came with a one hundred and eighty horsepower engine, which was more than peppy enough for civilian use.  There was an 1100x package that upgraded a few things, but mainly bumped the engine to two hundred horses, and that was downright quick.  Sure, there were bigger engines and faster cars, but very few that weren’t monitored with extra care.  Hannox had made enhancements that would attract no immediate attention, and they were all legal enough that a fine would be his worst punishment, if he ever got caught.  The motor had been adjusted to put out two hundred and fifteen horsepower.  The 1100s also used an old-style power train and transmission, which had been enhanced to give the car maximum acceleration from slow speeds.  Most situations where speed was needed in the city meant getting off the mark quickly; top end speed was rarely a worry because there were very few places it could be reached.  The vehicle had a silicon-based coating that made it resistant to casual ballistic impact and other blunt damage.  The tires had an interior coating to make them self-sealing and nearly wear proof.  He had also installed his car’s transponder into a remote control toy car that he could deploy from the undercarriage.  He had never used it but if he ever got in too deep with the authorities, it would make a great, short-term decoy.  And, like his apartment, there were a couple of hidden compartments for stowing hardware.