Sacrifice, Part 5

(Horror. The full story of the Hardwick House is revealed in a disturbing conclusion)

The smell was what hit her first, followed by the nasty sound of something metallic clanking against something else.  Her flashlight cut through the darkness, tracing through lines of chains and hooks and other things less clear to her.  She could not make out a stairway, ladder or other door; her heart felt like it was going to jump out of her chest in raw panic.

“Colin,” she whispered hoarsely, “is someone else here?”

Before she could react, the flashlight was knocked out of her hands, smashing on the floor and sputtering out.  Colin’s camping light was somehow distant or failing; she could barely see for the shadows.  Her arm was pinned behind her, followed by the other.  She raised her knee and kicked out, though it seemed not to affect her attacker.  A moment later, something slipped over her wrists and held them in place behind her back.  As if remembering she could, Macy screamed for Colin; the last thing she could remember before blacking out, wild with fear.

            Colin felt ill.  Reality, ugly and dark, was sinking in fast.  The presence had materialised in front of him. The gloomy figure of Charles Hardwick, founder of the American Hardwick clan and resident, undead psychopath stood before Colin.  His image was indistinct and blurred, though it was unmistakably the old man.  Colin had known him for a long time.

            “The appointed time hath come, young Colin,” Charles said in his usual mix of mumbles and groaning.

            “I know, Grandfather,” Colin said, strangely self-conscious about speaking aloud to the apparition, “and I am here.”

            “’tis well,” Charles said.  “Time doth drain me, though it be a curse of my own making.  Art thou prepared?”

            “Almost,” Colin said, hanging his head.  “I have to tell her before it is done.”  He could feel a wave of angry disapproval emanate from Charles, as easy to notice as a sudden change in temperature.

            “A waste,” Charles spat.  “What is gained by it, young Colin?”

            “My conscience will be appeased, if only a little,” Colin said flatly, not wishing to debate his decision.

            “Ye throw the minutes to the wind as a wastrel, child,” Charles uttered with distaste.  “My curse holds as ye dally with idle talk.”

            Colin had prepared for this exchange as he had for the one to convince Macy to explore the secret passage.  It was just a matter of executing the plan.

            “I am no longer a young boy, Grandfather,” he said calmly.  “Still, I plan to honour my oath to end the curse.  Midnight has not come or passed, so the time between is mine to use as I please, and it pleases me to explain all this madness to her.  You have lingered here for over two hundred years, a few more moments should be an easy matter.”  Grandfather was angry and impatient, yet shrewd enough to try hastening things.

            “Your conscience will cause ye no ill, lad,” Charles said, still angry.  “Mind ye, I might.  Think on it.”

            “You never had a conscience, Grandfather,” Colin said, remaining calm despite his rising temper, “so your advice has no weight to it.  And harm me if you want.  I know you will not.  I am the last Hardwick, the final heir to the family, and if I fail tonight your own curse will deny you rest for eternity.”

            “As ye will, child,” Charles growled, simmering rage beneath his words.  He stood silent and still, hovering over the room with the appearance of patience.  Colin felt energized after standing up to his grandfather.

            Colin tied Macy’s ankles tightly before lifting her onto the ancient table, securing her further with chains.  It would be enough to hold her until it was over.  He gently shook her.  “Macy,” he said, “you need to wake up for a while.  Just for a while, darling.”

            Macy was slow to come around.  The moments of fear she last remembered were distant and dreamlike.  It took a minute for her to recall her situation; her fear was less frantic, abated, perhaps, by her helpless condition.  Colin looked menacing in the strange light, yet his presence was a bizarre comfort.

            “There are things you need to know,” Colin began explaining, not wishing to drag the ordeal out.

            “Why?” was all she asked.  “What is happening?”

            “The family has been troubled by accidents and tragedy for many generations,” Colin said, keeping it plain.  “This is not chance.  Rather, it is a curse from beyond.”

            “What are you talking about?” Macy asked, understanding his words but not really following his meaning.

            “The family has been under a curse, imposed by one of its own patriarchs many generations ago,” Colin said, simply moving along without concern if she did not follow in detail.  “You see, Charles, the grey haired man in the portrait in the master suite, came into conflict with his son over…business matters.  The old man wanted to continue illegal practices as part of the regular business.  His son wanted to phase that out.  Things became tense between them, threatening to divide the family.”

            “Colin,” Macy said, eyes growing wide with fear, “what is going on?  Did you drug me?”

            He glanced to his side.  Charles hovered there, half mist and half shadow; every bit the ghoulish beast he had always been.  Macy must be feeling his intense malice and anger at being denied an immediate resolution, he thought; something he had grown used to.

            “Sorry,” Colin said, only wanting to finish his explanation without distraction.  “The old man turned on his son, threatening to disown him, or worse, if he failed to obey.  The son was not pleased with the threats and mustered his own supporters, turning on the old man.  They stormed the house.”

            Macy was growing hysterical.  “Not real, not real, not real…” she began to whisper, like a protective mantra.  Colin was tempted to slap her, shock her out her state.

            “The old man was unprepared,” Colin went on.  “They took him and were not certain what to do with him.  They worried he would return with hired help, or something, if they simply cast him out.  The biggest thing, really, was the money.  Charles had hidden the greater share of the family fortune somewhere, and was not telling.  The money was critical to the Hardwick future, no matter what direction the business took.”

            Macy had stopped her whispered chant but hardly seemed to be absorbing Colin’s explanation; which was mattering less and less to him.

            “They brought him here,” Colin said, “to this very room.  I am sure they did not plan for things to be overly brutal, but it was a dark age and things turned ugly.  A few days beatings turned to whippings, and escalated from there.  The torture became something grotesque, medieval.  It was long and terrible, ending in the death of old Charles, keeping his secret to the end.  The family found the money some years later, making the horrendous act meaningless.”

            Macy finally seemed to regard Colin in a lucid state.  “They killed him?” she asked, almost numbly.

            “Yes, Macy,” Colin said, tenderly, “and in his later moments he cursed them, us, to lives of tragedy and suffering for several generations.  He committed his own spirit to enforcing the curse in this world.  His rage and resentment is not diminished.”

            “Why this, Colin?” Macy asked gently.

            “Old Charles became a regular companion of mine, as a boy,” Colin explained, “until my father caught wind of our communications and moved us away.  The curse can be lifted with a sacrifice.  The Hardwick heir must kill his betrothed, here in this room, by the end of today.  It is the only way.”

            “I love you, Colin,” she said, almost as if she welcomed her fate.

            “I love you, too,” he replied, not meaning it but wishing her a touch of comfort in her last moments.  The blade was an old one, suggested by Charles so many years earlier.

            Colin turned to the apparition beside him, feeling the eagerness flow off him, and narrowed his eyes with resentment.

            “What I do now,” he said, as much to Charles as he did to whatever God might be out there listening, “is not of my own free will.  I am coerced by a demon beside me, may his soul reside below for all time.”  Charles stayed silent, seeming concerned only with what was to come.

            Macy was strikingly silent, only gasping slightly as the blade punched through her chest; her heart broken twice by the blow.  She struggled to breathe for a few moments before expiring.  It felt like she had passed in less than a minute.

            “Is it done?” Colin asked.

            “Her passage is beginning now,” Charles said.  “The soul is holding to the flesh as a babe to the womb before birth.  It will be done soon.”

            “Then what?  Do you move on?  Am I truly free?”

            “I shall pass to the beyond and be judged,” Charles said, with the first tinge of sadness Colin had ever heard from him.  “With that, I or my curse shall trouble thee nevermore.”

            After some moments of standing over Macy’s still body, Charles finally reacted to something invisible to Colin.  “Her departure begins,” he said, as if in awe.

            Colin felt relieved, somehow.  This thing had stayed with him, troubling him like a monster under his bed for his lifetime.  He could truly live, now.

            An irksome, troubling feeling from Charles struck Colin as harshly as a bucket of ice water might have.  The look and feel from the elder ghost grew into a state of malice and rage such that Colin had never known from him.  Something was extremely wrong, and Colin could not think of what it might be.

            “What is it?” he asked, fearfully.

            “Thou wouldst cheat me,” Charles said in blood soaked words.  “Such is the manner of mine own kin, sadly.”

            “I did everything my oath required,” Colin said, never so afraid as this before.  “How did I cheat you?”

            “Ye bring a betrothed to me, already known to a man before,” Charles spat, raw rage a torrent from him now.  “Ye, the last Hardwick, shall suffer worldly torments worse than mine own before we ride to the seven hells together.”

            Colin was too shocked to respond or take any action, at all, as Charles descended upon him, a force of pure wrath.  Colin’s screams found him as Charles began his vengeance.

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.

A Long Way Down

(This is a dark fiction I wrote a while back. It sits around two thousand words, after a painful edit.)

“I don’t know about this, Mitch,” Bobby said, scratching his head.  “It’s a long way down.”

Mitch held the fishing line where they had marked the depth of the hole.  It was twenty feet deeper than they had estimated.

“No biggee,” Mitch said, his usual confidence shining through, “we still have enough rope.”  Bobby kept his doubts to himself.  Mitch was fourteen, two years older; he was practically an adult.  If he was sure they could do it, then it could be done.

The two boys had scavenged sixty feet of rope and miscellaneous items for their fortune hunting.  Their fishing line and sinker measurement had the hole almost fifty feet deep.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Bobby asked.  “Your Gramps said it was only thirty.”

“He said it was about thirty,” Mitch corrected.  “It was a long time ago, but this is the place.  There aren’t any other holes like this near Camby Road.  We checked, remember?”

Mitch’s grandfather had spent a great deal of time in jail over the years.  It was only in the last couple of years that he got to know his grandson.  A week earlier, he died in hospital from a chronic lung infection.  His legacy was a poor one, rife with years of robbery, assault, and prison.  The only thing of value he left behind was stowed in an abandoned mine, the unmarked entrance to which was located on INCO property.

“We can’t chicken out,” Mitch went on as he double checked the rope.  “This might be the only chance we have to make it out of Bear Valley.  I don’t want to spend my life here with some shitty job or welfare.  This is it.”

“We could die down there,” Bobby said, as though they had not covered that possibility before.

“Listen,” Mitch said.  “You are the only guy I can trust, that’s why I brought you in on this.  I might need your help down there, too.  Remember, if I go down there alone, I keep it all.”

“I know,” Bobby said, feeling a little ashamed of his last minute fear.  “I’m not chickening out.  I just want to make sure we do this right.  Y’know, be safe.”

“There’s not much more we can do about that,” Mitch said, looking through his pack sack.  “Everybody is talking about INCO opening up this mine again, because of the price of gold and all that.  If we wait too long we might not get a chance to do this.  I would rather die in this hole than live poor my whole life.”  This had been something of a mantra since Mitch’s grandfather revealed the hidden inheritance.

Their decent was slow and careful.  Mitch went first, holding the rope with white-knuckled effort as he lowered himself down.  The walls of the hole were close enough to reach, and had plenty of ledges, but the rope was the only secure thing to hold.  The edges had grown mossy and crumbled, making them dangerous handholds.  Bobby watched as Mitch descended into the gloom; the sight did nothing to alleviate his concerns.  Bobby watched a faint light grow stronger down the hole, Mitch barely visible in the greenish glow.

“How’s the rope holding?” he called up to Bobby.  He sounded a thousand miles away.

“It looks fine,” Bobby yelled back.  “The knot is solid and the log hasn’t budged.”

“Good, I’m almost there,” Mitch replied.  “Start down after me in a minute.”

Bobby waited for about a minute, as near as he could reckon.  The trip down was not as bad as he had expected.  The tightness of the walls around him made a fall seem less likely; the illusion of safety being a comfort against the dangerous reality.  When Mitch spoke, Bobby almost fell from the sudden shock of broken silence.

“It took you long enough,” Mitch grumbled.  Bobby looked down for the first time since entering the hole.  Mitch stood not more than ten feet below.  The green light of a glow stick made him look sinister.

“Sorry, Mitch,” Bobby said sarcastically as he lowered himself to the floor.  “Where did you get the glow stick?”

Mitch smiled in the eerie green light.  “Lifted a couple from Garner’s store,” Mitch answered.  “He won’t miss them.  Besides, I can pay him back once we get this gold out of here.”

“Right,” Bobby said, trying to sound like he was cool with it.  His parents were not much better off than Mitch’s father, a widower since Mitch was three, though they frowned on things like stealing.  Mitch’s father, on the other hand, was an alcoholic from a family well acquainted with the judicial system.  As much as Mitch’s behaviour bothered him, Bobby couldn’t shake his loyalty to his best, lifelong friend.  Mitch may have been rough around the edges, but he was always there to scare off bullies or share a stolen chocolate bar.

“The tunnel ahead is where the old mine starts,” Mitch said, pointing with his glow stick.  “It’s exactly how Gramps said it was.”

“It’s not too far, though, right?” Bobby asked.  “Like, maybe a hundred feet or something?”

“That’s what he said,” Mitch replied, “but it was a long time ago, so it might be more or less than that.  What’s for sure is that this is the right place.  We’re going to be rich, Bobby.”

Bobby smiled at that.  He knew it would be harder than just showing up at a bank or pawn shop with a bar of gold, yet the promise of long term wealth was hypnotic.  Ever since Mitch had approached him, Bobby imagined a life of comic books, pizza and video games.  He would live with Mitch in a mansion and never need to work.

They had agreed Bobby would go first in the tunnel since Mitch went first down the rope.  Bobby had taken a small flashlight from the shed.  It definitely threw less light than when he tested it in his room the night before.  Still, it was enough with Mitch’s glow stick providing light from behind.  They made better time once they reached the old mine level, where the floor was mostly level and ceiling high enough to stand straight.  Considering how narrow the way had been before, the mine passage was spacious.

Bobby was certain the walk felt longer than it was.  His sense of distance was clouded by the dark, unbending and featureless ruin of a mine.  The only sounds came from their nervous breathing and crunch of loose stone underfoot.  It felt like the world above was a million miles away.

Suddenly, the floor was clogged with loose rock that blocked their way.  A quick look with the flashlight made it clear the ceiling had collapsed at this point.

“The dead end,” Bobby whispered.  “Just like your Gramps said.  This has to be it.”

He looked to the right, where the box was supposed to be.  Mitch was looking, too.  Bobby moved into the corner until his flashlight was only a few feet from the wall.  A rotten box, hinges and lock heavily rusted, appeared in the beam.

“The box!” Bobby exclaimed, almost jumping at the sight of it.  “I can’t believe it.  It’s right there.”

“Holy crap, you’re right,” Mitch said.  “Gramps wasn’t crazy.  This is the real deal.  Go ahead and open it, Bobby.  You saw it first.  I’ll get the pack sack ready.”

Bobby was too excited to argue the point.  Three bars of gold, stolen from the mine by Mitch’s grandfather, lay before them; money enough to live rich for three lifetimes.  The lid broke apart before Bobby could get it all the way open.  Three dirty bricks lay at the bottom of the ancient, ruined box.  Somehow, they still gave off the slightest shine of yellow.  Bobby rubbed one of them with his sleeve and the golden colour was undeniable.  The deal was two for Mitch and one for him, but that was more than enough for a life of comic books, pizza and video games.

“Aaahh!” Bobby cried as the beam from his flashlight crossed a bony hand next to the box.  “What the hell is that?!”  He stumbled back and looked again.  The hand was connected to the remains of a skeleton, with only scant remains of clothing clinging to it.

“That’s Scott McMurphy,” Mitch said, looking far too calm for the circumstances.  “He was my Gramps’ partner.”

Bobby took a moment to process this.  It was the only thing between him and pure panic.  “What happened?  Why is he here?  Did he come back to take it and fall or something?  Did your Gramps know about this?”

“Yeah, he knew,” Mitch said calmly.  “I just didn’t want to tell you.  You might not have come if you knew there was a body down here.”

“But what happened?  How did he die?”  Bobby was in shock.  He wanted to look away, shine the light somewhere else, except for the horrible, mad fear that dead Scott McMurphy would stand up and kill them.

“Gramps killed him,” Mitch said.  “He needed to be sure the hiding place would stay secret.”

“He was his partner…” Bobby trailed off in thought for a moment.  “Why?”

“Nice guys finish last,” Mitch said in the same, steady voice.  Bobby looked at his best friend, bathed in the sick, green light of a stolen glow stick, suddenly noticing he held a knife.

“Mitch?” Bobby squeaked out.  “What are you doing?”

“What Gramps told me to,” Mitch said, slowly approaching.  “You’re a loose end, man.  I hate to do it, but I can’t risk this getting out.”

“You can have it all, Mitch,” Bobby whined, backing away.  “I won’t say anything, honest.  Just don’t kill me down here, okay?”

There would be no fighting Mitch.  Even without the knife, he was a head taller with a deceivingly strong frame.  Bobby was wiry, yes, but knew he could never win.  Bobby scrambled over the loose, fallen rocks until he was cornered.  He lashed out with a wild kick, hoping to get lucky.  Mitch countered with a punch that came short.  In a last, desperate attempt to survive, Bobby tried to lunge past him and run for the hole.  If he could only get clear he might make it.

Bobby flashed his light into Mitch’s eyes and jumped over the rocks awkwardly.  The flash of pain in his left leg took a moment to register; the adrenaline nearly muted it out.  Bobby kept moving forward, half crawling and half running as Mitch pawed at him.  When they cleared the rocks, Mitch struck again, cutting Bobby’s left Achilles through to the bone.

Bobby tried to stand, only his foot could not hold him.  Terror subsided into angry resignation in a flash.

“Why, Mitch?” Bobby shouted.  “Why did you bring me here?  Why did you even tell me about it?  Are you just a psycho or something?”

Mitch hesitated, breathing hard.  “Sorry,” he said.  “Gramps couldn’t remember if he booby trapped the box or not.  I needed you to open it, just in case.”

Bobby suddenly felt light-headed.  “But why me?  You could have brought someone else.  I’m your friend.”

“You were the only one I could trust not to blab,” Mitch replied, the first hint of remorse entering his voice.  “It had to be you.”

“Mitch,” Bobby pleaded, his strength fading, “you can still trust me.  I can say it was an accident or something.  You can keep the gold.  I’ll never tell…”

“That treasure is all I’ll ever get from my family,” Mitch said, sounding tired.  “Mom is dead and Dad is just a drunk bum.  Gramps wasn’t much better, really, but at least he left me something.  I have nothing else.  I can’t risk it.  Sorry.”

Mitch struck again.  Bobby, weakened and shocked, put up a poor defense.  As his friend finished him off, Bobby couldn’t escape the thought of how far down he was.

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.

When They Hate You Back

(All right, back into the darkness. This is a bizarre and horrific tale that just occurred to me one day. I wrote it very quickly and made few adjustments. If you don’t like your stories weird, stop now; otherwise, enjoy.)

Melissa Perkinns flung her latest outfit against the wall in a fit of rage.

“Fuck!” she yelled.  It was the strongest word she knew; still, it was far weaker than what she felt.

A pile of unpicked clothing lay discarded in the corner, a victim of her picky taste.  I should draw a chalk line around it, Melissa thought spitefully.

Her closet was small, typical for a dorm room, and picked clean of every stitch except for a dirty pair of sweat pants and pyjama top.  Melissa’s anger simmered, unwilling to boil off into the karmic void.  It was too much to deal with and find something to wear at the same time.

Melissa hated her wardrobe.  Sure, it was fashionable enough and new enough to be nice, but it had lost something along the way.  It was not quite right; and that intangible loss ruined the entire value.  She knew she looked good and worked hard to stay fit for the kind of clothes she liked.  But she had reached a lull in her finances.

School ate money faster than she could ever have imagined; and it also meant little opportunity to work for more money.  The clothing budget was slashed to nearly nothing.  The last thing she had added was over a month ago; a simple, grey sweater that would work with several other pieces she owned.  Her credit cards were maxed out, another issue, and family had been bled dry for clothing gifts.

In the end, she made do with a pair of jeans, a white shirt and the grey sweater.  It was as close to what she wanted as she could manage.  Melissa was so outraged that the clothes seemed to burn on her body in rebellion.

When her day ended, she pulled off her clothes and felt relieved to be free of them.  A quick exchange of texts with her closest friends gave no relief; none of them had anything new, either.  Even a couple of old boyfriends spurned her with short, dismissive messages, meaning they had new girlfriends.  She would have put out for a chance at a new clothing option.  Instead, she stood alone and naked, seething with anger that would not stop.

“There has to be something I can do,” Melissa said to the mirror before her, not noticing her gritted teeth.

No new ideas came to her.  She kicked and stomped the pile of clothes for several minutes, finally spitting on it.  Her eyes were wet from the frustration but no sobs came through.

Exhausted from her fit and mentally strained day, she went to bed.  Sleep wear usually escaped her fashion standards, yet she could not bear to wear anything at all that night.  She hated all her clothes.

Nightmares wracked her mind.  She dreamed of her clothes, and how she hated them.  They were so much worse in her nightmare, uglier and uglier each time she looked at them, desperately trying to find something nice.  In the end, she had her familiar pile of clothes on the floor, only different.  This pile had eyes and a mouth.  It was an evil thing, somehow, and it spoke in a crackly, static sounding voice.  The voice was hard to understand at first, as though it were speaking for the first time, however the tone was unmistakable.  Whatever she had felt in term of rage was amplified many times over in the voice of the clothes.

“Bitch,” the clothes spat the first intelligible word.  “You fucking bitch.  You snotty, spoiled whore.  Think you hate us?  Hate us bad?  Well, do we have a nice, bitchy surprise for you, princess?  Fucking right.  Wakey, wakey.  Think you know how to hate…”

Whether it was the power from the clothes’ voice or just the extreme fear she felt at the moment, Melissa woke intensely from her nightmare.  She was too startled to scream, though she wanted to.  Her room was dark but she could feel the presence of something else; something familiar from the malicious feeling it gave off.  She found her phone on the nightstand and lit it up.  She looked into the corner in the dim light of her phone.  The clothes pile was gone.  I must still be dreaming, Melissa thought.

Then the terror returned.

If I am still dreaming, she wondered, what will happen next?

As if in answer, her cell phone slipped from her hand, extinguishing itself as it struck the floor.  Her night vision had faded slightly from the phone’s light, and she could not see where it had fallen.  Instinctively, she reached for it, pawing at the floor below.  Her fingers brushed the rough surface of the cheap carpet before contacting something soft, and she froze in panic.  The pile of clothes!

The soft thing on the floor twisted around her hand before Melissa could recoil.  She frantically pulled back, unable to break the grasp of the clothes, for she knew it could only be that.  She began to scream as more of the clothing lashed further up her wrist and forearm, furthering the hold on her.  Seconds later, the cell phone light came on, illuminating the clothes as they gave a sudden tug, bringing Melissa to the floor.  She started to strike the pile of clothes with her free arm until it, too, was caught.  Pain surged as the bones in her hands began to crack and break under the pressure of the twisting fabric.  Melissa cursed and sobbed, anger and fear dominating her in equal measure.  The clothes latched around her waist.

“I hate you.  I really hate you.”  It was all she could think to say, as her forearms snapped.  A moment later, she could not even breathe; the clothes were wound tight around her midsection.

“We’re the last thing you’ll ever wear, bitch,” the clothes whispered in the static crackle of a voice.  “We hate you back.”

Melissa Perkins blacked out as her clothes pile crushed her into a dead, hateful pulp.

The Rhino, the Bird and the Mouse

(This is a story for children. The inspiration is from Kipling, who is great with this stuff. The story was read aloud many times before I ever wrote it down. A huge change from the last story that I hope you will enjoy. Something more traditional and serious next week.)

     Once upon a time, there lived a rhino, a bird and a mouse.  They all lived on a large plain with plenty of food, water and space for all the animals.

     One season, however, the weather was poor and very little rain fell, so water was scarce and all the animals suffered.  This was a rare thing to happen, but it was known that the plains on the other side of the mountains usually had plenty of water when the other was dry.  Many animals made the journey, and soon the plain was almost empty; but the rhino, the bird and the mouse stayed behind.  The plain had always been their home and they did not want to leave, even if times were difficult.

     After a while, though, they found that the shortage of food and water was too much, and decided to make the trip across the mountains.  The three decided to travel together, seeing how they were going to the same place.  They took a well known pass through the mountains.  The pass was safe and the going easy, but they encountered an obstacle, just as they neared the end of the pass, and it blocked them completely.  A small landslide had left a large pile of rocks across their path, and there was no way around it.  The three travelers stopped for a moment, to think about how they would cross.

     “I am sorry to have to leave you like this,” the bird said, “but I am very hungry and thirsty.  The plains are just beyond this place, and I can fly over these rocks without much trouble.  I’m sure you will find a way across, too.  Good day.”

     The rhino tried to say something, before the bird departed, but the bird did not think that a big, stupid rhino would have anything important to say, and didn’t stop.  The bird flew over the steep pile of rocks and down the other side.  This was very difficult because the bird was used to flying on the plains, where he did not have to fly very high or very far.  So, when he reached the other side of the pass and came to that plain, he was very tired and needed rest.  Unfortunately, a nearby pack of hyenas saw him, and how tired he was, and gave chase.  The bird was too tired to escape, so the hyenas caught and ate him.

     Not long after the bird had left, the mouse grew anxious about getting through the pass.

     “Well, I am also hungry and thirsty,” said the mouse, “so I can’t wait any longer, either.  I am small enough to crawl through these rocks.  I’m sure you’ll find a way past, too.  Good day.”

     The rhino tried to say something, again, but the mouse didn’t think it would make a difference, and kept on going.  The rocks had fallen loosely, so there were plenty of gaps for him to make his way through, just like the narrow mouse tunnels under the plain.  He went quite far, manoeuvering through gaps and cracks and such, until he could almost see the light on the other side.  Then, in his excitement to cross, he tried to squeeze through a tight gap.  He had known it would be tight before he went through, but thought he could wiggle past it.  The rocks, however, were not like the tunnels he was used to on the plain, and wiggling was not working.  This was not a problem, for the mouse was patient and knew he would get out.  Unfortunately, a snake was hunting in the rocks, and saw the mouse was trapped.  The mouse didn’t have time to escape, and was eaten.

     The rhino was alone, now.  He was hungry and thirsty, and badly wanted to get to the new plains, beyond the landslide.  He waited until he thought the bird and mouse would be safely across, and did what he had planned to do all along; only the others hadn’t given him time to say so.  He backed up the pass until he had room for a good, long run at the rocks that blocked him.  He ran at the rocks, as fast as he could, lowering his head at the last moment.  His big body and strong head smashed the boulders aside, and he made it to the other plains; where he found water to drink and food to eat.

(The moral of the story is that cooperation is better than selfinterest. A secondary moral is that we should not make assumptions about the input from others, even if we believe ourselves to be smarter.)