* This was a fun story which came out of a seminar's writing exercise. It was first published in an online magazine called The Nonbinary Review. This magazine had a topic for each issue and mine was included in the issue for the Arabian Nights stories. My story has little to do with those original stories, other than a genie and the setting of Iraq, but they accepted and published it nontheless.
The Leprechaun’s Vacation
By John Haas
Qatar Airways flight QR442 landed at Baghdad International and taxied to the gate. Passengers were on their feet before the door opened, anxious for the flight to be over.
Casey Michael Sullivan—Sully to his friends—gave the flight attendant a conspiratorial wink as he passed and was delighted to see the man break into an uncomfortable sweat. Sully continued on his way, whistling, while the flight attendant continued his apologies to the disembarking passengers.
He’d managed to reign most of his impulses during the flight, frustrating as that was. Still, this flight had been plagued with spilled drinks, wailing babies and bathroom doors which refused to stay locked. Call buttons flashed though no one had pressed the button and televisions played scenes best left unmentioned.
Sully was a professional though. He knew the limit to which things could be pushed and had stayed on the fair side of that line. The plane returning to Qatar would have upset his plans and he couldn’t have that. He’d come to Iraq for a reason—an embarrassing, secret one he couldn’t share with his family. As far as they were concerned he was on a vacation.
He patted the breast pocket of his lime green business suit, checking for the package the way a regular man might reassure himself that his wallet was still there.
“Ah, the middle-east,” he said, breathing in the hot, dry air of Baghdad.
At least he wouldn’t hear the sudden shout of Leprechaun, followed by another frenzied chase. These people had their own ‘myths’ and wouldn’t recognize one of his race if he’d been wearing a green derby and buckles on his shoes.
“Stereotypes,” he shook his head.
The only place Leprechauns dressed like that these days was on the side of cereal boxes.
Sully stretched to his full four foot one inch height, quite tall for his race, and headed for customs. Now that he was off the plane he could have some fun.
After a hilarious trip through customs where a man was led away for a full body search, and a taxi ride where Sully paid with the back page ripped from his tattered tourist’s handbook, he arrived outside the National Museum. He stood on the steps laughing to himself.
“Okay, back to the task at hand,” he said, wiping a mirthful tear from his eye.
As expected the museum, not scheduled to re-open for many months, had locked doors. Not that locked doors or schedules applied to him. The lock was tricky though, made mostly of iron which made it difficult to manipulate with magic. It would take too much of his personal magic, and more of an understanding of the lock’s inner mechanisms, to get it open.
He shifted to invisibility and set the alarm off.
Leprechauns had two sources of magic, one for granting wishes which was near-to limitless, and one personal which was not. Five minutes of invisibility, on top of what he used for pranks since leaving the plane, could drain him for the next hour. Most times when a Leprechaun was caught it was while they were waiting on personal magic to replenish.
Alarm wailing, two security guards and a serious, suited man threw open the doors from the inside.
“Stop,” one yelled in Arabic at the conjured image of a fleeing man.
The two guards gave chase while Serious Man remained at the doors with arms crossed. Sully slipped past and entered the museum, leaving everyone to their jobs. Once inside he dropped the invisibility, waving to one security camera that couldn’t capture his magical image anyway.
Sully rubbed his hands together in delight, eyes bright and sparkling as he made his way among the museum’s treasures. Thoughts of pranks and jokes were forgotten.
“The Mask of Warka,” he whispered with awe. “The Bassetki Statue. Unbelievable.”
These artifacts were more than four thousand years old and he drank in their atmosphere, exalted in it. Leprechauns were long-lived but four thousand years made him feel like a babe.
Oh, if only he could share this experience.
That cooled his excitement. Sharing this would get him shunned. To show passion for something which wasn’t a prank was indecent. No, he cherished his family, and revered these artifacts, but the two could never meet.
One artifact was missing. “Where is the jar?”
The Sumerian Gold Jar had recently been returned from Germany, one of thousands of items to be looted during the 2003 war. The jar was more than six thousand years old, an age his mind couldn’t even fathom.
“It has to be around here somewhere,” he said, whistling to himself.
The next hour was a glorious tour of the of the museum’s treasures, more than he ever could have hoped for. At one point he came to a hallway heading away from the main museum floor, doors lining each side.
“Administrative offices,” he muttered, turning away.
A memory tugged at his mind and he ran fingers along the outline in his breast pocket.
“Oh, right. Well, it is the reason you came here,” he said, heading down the hallway.
This was the embarrassing part. If a love for artifacts could have got him shunned then this would have resulted in outright banishment. He got a sense of the uneasiness he gave to humans.
Outside the curator’s office he stopped to listen. No sounds. With a shrug Sully opened the door while shifting to invisibility.
“What is it?” Serious Man asked without glancing up from his paperwork.
Sully stepped into the office, allowing the door to close behind him.
“Who is there?” the man demanded, slapping his pen down.
Receiving no response he got up and stormed to the door, jerking it open with a muttered curse.
Sully took in the room, one corner of his mind keeping watch on his dwindling personal magic. The office was medium sized with a laptop, books, stacks of papers and a few artifacts of no real note or age.
“Boring,” he breathed, wishing the man would hurry.
Serious Man looked left and right at the door while Sully rolled his eyes in an exaggerated way. At the top of the eye-roll he stopped though.
“Now, what is that?”
Tucked away on top of a shelf, more forgotten than displayed, was a lamp straight out of the Arabian Nights.
Serious Man returned to his desk in a fury. Such self-importance. Ordinarily Sully would take time to show him life could always be worse, but the magic which had seeped back in with agonizing slowness over the past hour was now flowing in the other direction. He didn’t have time for finesse. A flick of Sully’s hand and the shouts of angry people filled the street outside. The curator stood and moved to the room’s one window. With a cry he dashed from the room, calling for security. By the time they realized no mob was descending on the museum Sully would have his business done and be back on the tour.
Sully discarded the invisibility before the door had even closed. Then, with the greatest of care, he withdrew the package from his inside pocket and unrolled the protective fabric. The marvelous piece of jewellery slid onto the desk blotter and Sully admired the gold and precious jewels winking with reflected sunlight. It pulled a sigh from him.
The necklace was no Gold Jar but it deserved to be appreciated by everyone. When Sully had seen it in a collector’s private collection back home he had known where it belonged immediately. He looked around, as if his entire family watched with disapproving eyes. A passion for artifacts could get him shunned, but doing an act as incomprehensible as returning something where it belonged would get him banished. He would be an aberration, a freak.
Task completed Sully turned toward the door, every intention on returning to his tour, but something tugged at his mind. His eyes moved back to the lamp.
“Now, why would that be all the way up there?”
Sully knew what it appeared to be but didn’t believe it for an instant. Still, it was a wonderful artifact and deserved better attention. He waved a hand toward the lamp, intending to magic it down. The lamp didn’t move.
“That’s curious,” he muttered, a smile spreading across his face.
The personal magic was low, not enough to levitate himself for sure, but he should have enough to move such a small object.
“Well, the other ways work too,” he said with good humor.
Sully locked the door behind him then rolled the desk chair closer. Standing on it he balanced so the wheels wouldn’t roll. His fingers brushed against the lamp.
Stretching, stepping onto the arm.
“Old. Hmm… is that an inscription?”
One finger latched around the lamp’s handle and Sully pulled it toward him. He rubbed the bronze against his sleeve, wanting to read the words. With a bang the lamp poured smoke into the office. Sully jerked and the chair shot out from under him, sailing toward the door. He held the lamp against him as he fell, knowing he didn’t have enough magic for a feather pillow to fall onto.
Something softer than floor stopped his fall.
When the smoke cleared Sully saw he was resting in the smooth, strong palm of a genie’s hand.
“You are far from home, little leprechaun,” the deep voice rumbled.
Sully bristled at the adjective. Pulling his feet under him he jumped to the ground. “I’m on vacation, if you must know.”
The genie floated, arms crossed inside a spotless, white kanduras that did nothing to hide the power in his arms and chest. Below the waist he billowed into murky smoke which streamed back toward the lamp. Fierce eyes stared out from between the thickly bearded face and a mussar head covering. An arrogance lived in those eyes, not only looking down at Sully, but on him as well.
The two scrutinized each other for a heartbeat.
“You owe me three wishes,” both said.
“And how am I owing you wishes?” Sully asked.
“I caught you, did I not?”
Sully thought of how he hadn’t hit the floor. Not the intention of the rule but it did fit the wording. Well, rules are rules, and a deal is a deal, as his Da always said. Of course, a deal was only a deal until the other party wasn’t paying attention. If a human had caught him—which hadn’t happened in decades, and he wasn’t counting when he allowed himself to get caught for fun—he would trick them into letting go and disappear. Sully had been released but the genie could grant wishes too, and that had some interesting possibilities.
“True, you did catch me,” Sully said, his Leprechaun soul taking over the negotiations, “but I freed you first.”
The genie scowled, looking Sully up and down as if he were something nasty on the bottom of a shoe. He gave a snort of contempt but nodded.
Sully smiled. They may be magical beings but both had rules to follow. The genie couldn’t tell someone to bugger off any more than he could.
“No need to call me master though, Sully said, winking. “Why stand on ceremony?”
“Indeed,” the genie replied, anger flashing in his eyes.
“My name is Sully, and what would I be calling you?”
“You may refer to me as Hamza Mahad Abdul Al-Farrukh.”
“Woo, that’s a mouthful. I’ll just call you Hammy.”
The doorknob behind them rattled followed by a curse. A second voice came from further away.
“The door locked when I left,” Serious Man’s voice said.
“Yes, there should be a spare somewhere.”
The two voices receded but the genie glared at the door with loathing for an extra second before concentrating his attention on Sully again.
Sully knew the stories about genies. They weren’t mischievous but they could still twist wishes as they saw fit. Some were good and others evil, but most fell somewhere in between. This one was arrogant to be sure, but that didn’t make him evil. By the way Hammy was eyeing him he had his own ideas about Leprechaun’s reputations.
“I do not trust you,” the genie stated flatly.
Well, Hammy wasn’t stupid at least. “I suppose you’ll be trying to screw me on my wishes,” Sully said.
“If I told you no?”
“I wouldn’t believe you, of course.”
“As I am certain you will taint my wishes.”
“It’s the nature of the game.”
“It’s all a game, Hammy. Life. Everything.”
“To you perhaps,” the genie considered Sully. “Hmm, would you be able to grant a Djinn’s wishes?”
Sully shrugged. “Why not?”
“Djinn are of a higher magical order than leprechauns. Are you permitted to grant a superior being’s wishes?”
“Superior?” Sully sputtered, then calmed. It was a good, clean insult and Sully hadn’t expected it. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll manage. After all, you are able to grant human’s wishes and they are above you.”
“Dog! Human are not above the Djinn, they are not even magical.”
“No?” Sully mused. “How did they manage to stuff you in that lamp, I wonder?”
“A trick! One we turned to our advantage.”
Sully listened to him go on about the relation between genies and humans for several minutes while he hid his grin. An insult had been repaid, as an insult must. The genie wouldn’t grant his wishes straight now which was fine by him. It would be fun to see how another race twisted their wishes. He held up a hand and stopped the genie mid-sentence.
“Much as I would love to hear your unending rant, I think we should get back to business.”
“Rant?” the genie looked furious a moment then it was gone. “As you wish.”
“Hmm, maybe you should call me master after all.”
Anger again simmered in the genie’s eyes.
“Just kidding, Hammy. Relax a little.”
The eyes squinted to slits. Had he gone too far?
Nah, no such thing.
“So, I guess I’ll be taking my wishes first,” Sully said.
“No,” the genie repeated. “You may have your first wish, then I will have mine.”
“Not trusting me as far as you could throw me, hmm?”
“I could throw you across the desert if I chose.”
Sully chuckled though he knew the genie hadn’t made a joke.
“What is your first wish?” the genie asked.
“Simple. A cup of tea.”
“Yep, tea like I could get back home. I haven’t had a decent cuppa since I left.”
This first wish was a test, his way to learn the genie’s thought process. Sully flashed through all the various ways he would reinterpret a wish for tea. If Hammy was unimaginative it would be cold, or over-sweetened.
It was marvelous to be watching this from the other side of the table, so to speak.
The tea appeared in a cup of bone white china, much like Sully’s favorite one back home, and hovered. He put his hand out and the cup deposited itself into his palm.
Sully took a sip—no sugar, no milk, just the way he liked it. The tea was strong and hot without being scalding. In brief, it was perfect and that worried Sully. Why would there be no trick?
No. A horrible thought came to Sully, one he hoped wasn’t true. Was the genie playing it straight? Where was the fun in that?
“It’s good,” Sully said. “Who would have known a genie could make proper tea? Maybe you could be my butler, Hammy.”
“Now to my wish,” the genie said, not rising to the bait.
“I suppose you’ll be wishing to be free of the lamp?”
“You know nothing of the Djinn. Our lamps bind us here and limit our movements true, but without it I would need to return home and remain there.”
“I understand. You want to stay and have fun.”
The genie’s eyes narrowed, lips clamping shut. Sully took another sip of his tea then signaled that he was ready.
“I wish to see the desert again,” the genie said.
“The desert? That’s it?”
Sully wasn’t fooled. Hammy could have wished to be in the desert instead. No, this was a test the way his tea had been. Granting the wish straight and transporting the genie to the desert, something they both knew he wouldn’t do, would put him beyond Sully’s influence and free.
Sully raised one hand and gestured at the laptop. It spun around, flashing a realistic image of the desert on its screen.
The genie muttered. “No imagination.”
Perhaps the comment was true but the image had the desired effect. Hammy stared at the image with such undisguised longing that Sully started to laugh at the seriousness.
“Very amusing,” the genie sighed.
Sully laughed harder while the genie’s skin turned an angry reddish hue.
“I shall take my second wish now,” the genie said.
Sully shook his head, still giggling. “Not the way it works, Hammy.”
“Nevertheless, I will go first, imp.”
Sully’s laughter died in an instant. Imp? Him? Imps—a pathetic race of ugly minor demons craving human attention and playing sad, unimaginative pranks. They were the lowest of magical creatures.
“I am a Leprechaun, you aloof, imperious bastard.”
“What you are is a light-fingered hedonist with no morals.”
Sully considered a moment. “Was that an insult?”
“It was meant to be.”
Sully tried to glare back but he couldn’t help it, he giggled. Soon he was doubled over with great uncontrollable whoops of laughter. The genie watched him, rolling his eyes, but soon a smile split his stern features. One great booming guffaw like a thunderclap erupted from him.
“Fine, fine,” Sully agreed, wiping tears from his eyes. “Go first.”
The genie regarded him with suspicion, perhaps expecting some trick to be involved. “I want information.”
Inside, Sully groaned. Information wishes were the worst. No way to twist them, not without lying which was against the rules. He could lose his magic for that, permanently. Still, what could Hammy want to know that he couldn’t find for himself?
“Ready when you are,” Sully said.
“I wish to know, how many of my race are left in this world?”
That was indeed interesting. Sully didn’t realize genies were not able to sense each other. Of course, he couldn’t tell how many Leprechauns were alive right now either. He closed his eyes and accessed the wish magic. The answer came and his eyes shot open.
“Ah, well, there are four left,” Sully said, “including yourself.”
“Four?” the genie whispered.
Sully had four brothers alone, and he had seen them at Sunday dinner last week. To not know if they were alive…
“So few,” the genie said, “and I am imprisoned here.”
“The curator punishes me. I did not grant the wishes to his satisfaction.”
“Yep, that does anger them. Still, it is in our nature.”
“No! Djinn are not like leprechauns, we do not play.”
“Djinn require respect, but that dog spoke to me as a master would a slave. I twisted his every wish without effort, making it clear he was beneath me. Now I languish here.”
“Humans are a pain in the arse, to be sure,” Sully sighed, a memory demanding attention. “Last one to catch me was smart enough to not let go. Did you know magical beings can be held with iron?”
The genie nodded.
“I didn’t. Came as quite a shock.”
Sully cast off the distasteful memory. This had all gotten a bit heavy for his tastes.
“You are ready for your next wish?” the genie asked.
A smile came to Sully’s face. He was indeed ready and saw the opportunity for fun in what would obviously be Hammy’s next wish.
“As I see it,” Sully said, “we don’t trust each other.”
“Oh absolutely,” Sully agreed. “Now, I’m certain you will twist my next wish.”
The genie snorted his disdain.
“Or, I’ll be so focussed on not being tricked that I’ll screw myself.”
“So, for my second wish… are you ready?”
“Wish and be done.”
“Okay, then,” Sully grinned. “I wish that for our final wishes, we choose for each other.”
But the wish had been spoken and it was law, a binding contract. It hadn’t even taken magic to grant so he had nothing to manipulate.
“No,” the genie repeated in an anguished whisper.
Sully made a show of picking lint from his suit, waiting.
“Fine,” Hammy said, resigned, “make your wish.”
Sully supposed he could argue that since he was wishing for Hammy the genie should go first but this fit his plans better. “Oh, what to wish for?”
The genie floated, resigned and silent, eyes closed.
“I don’t suppose you’d have any input?”
When Hammy opened his eyes Sully turned away. “No, no. You’re right. This is my wish and must come from me.”
Sully made a show of thinking.
“Perhaps a new home. Would you like to live in a teapot?”
“No? Some company then? Should I join you? We could play cards.”
Still no reaction.
“Yeah, bad idea. I cheat,” Sully snapped his fingers. “A collection of American music playing non-stop.”
Hammy groaned and Sully was amused that the genie found him less offensive than the music. He could fix that opinion, but it would take time and he wanted to get back to his museum tour. That jar was around here someplace.
Sully cleared his throat ensuring he had Hammy’s full attention.
“I wish,” Sully said, feeling the power in the words, “for your lamp to be relocated where someone can find you.”
“What? I…” the genie began, already fading as the wish magic surged.
Sully would hate himself tomorrow for not taking better advantage of Hammy’s distress, but for now he subscribed to the idea that all good things come to an end.
The genie mumbled something before disappearing completely. Sully let a wry grin cross his face at the satisfaction and gratitude on the genie’s face. He wished he could be there when Hammy opened his eyes in Nashville.
“Enjoy the music,” Sully said with a mischievous grin, then. “Hey, what about my last wish?”
Had he been screwed out of his final wish? Sully shrugged. Not exactly a big deal. He’d already gotten what he really wanted.
The curator’s office faded away, replaced by a new room. There, on a table, surrounded by the packaging it had shipped in, was the Sumerian Gold Jar. Sully felt his breath catch.
“It’s beautiful,” he breathed, approaching it with the proper amount of admiration and respect.
“Now, why does that word set my mind thinking?”
Oh, yes. Hammy said it was what he required.
“Well, I certainly didn’t give him any of that.”
So why hadn’t Hammy twisted his wish? Sully’s mind jumped to the tea, so hot and perfect. He’d assumed Hammy had granted that first wish straight. Why would he do that without respect?
A rumbling in his stomach stopped him. He didn’t feel quite right.
Another rumble, accompanied by a painful cramp.
“Oh no! Hammy you bastard. There was laxative in the tea.”
He bolted for the only door and found it locked.
“Hammy,” he shouted.
A deep booming laugh, like far off thunder, filled the room.
*I owe this one story a lot.
'Til Death was one of the first stories I let people I didn't know read. Up to then it had just been family and friends. I used this story in a critiquing class and received some great feedback from both the other students and the teacher. It encouraged me to keep going.
I submitted 'Til Death to the Capital Crime Writers contest here in Ottawa back in 2012 and actually won first place. Another piece of encouragement.
The story itself would finally be published in the first issue of Shooter Literary Magazine in 2014.
‘ Til Death
By John Haas
Joel Ransom intercepted his wife Vivian at the top of the stairs. He gave her a hard shove and watched the surprise on her face as she went over backward. The Cosmopolitan she’d been carrying flew off into space, its glass would shatter on the hallway floor below. The crunch of her head hitting the wood, eight steps from the top, was particularly satisfying. From there she did one little bounce with another delightful impact then rolled the rest of the way down the staircase. She was dead, her head turned at an impossible angle. She...
His smile widened like the Cheshire Cat ready to disappear.
He shook off his thoughts and looked into Vivian’s face.
“Let me by, please?”
Joel looked at Vivian as if seeing her for the first time. Her face held a condescending smile with no humour, her eyes slightly squinted. Her black curly hair hung limp and would until her bath later when she would finally get out of her pyjamas. Joel nodded then stepped to the right to let her past. Vivian shook her head as she walked away.
That little shake of the head was one of her habits that made him see red. That and her drinking, her multiple baths a day, her... well, there were too many to list.
He watched her shuffle down the hallway headed for the bedroom they had shared for the last thirty-five years. As she went she sipped her second Cosmo of the morning.
That little voice inside his head that kept pushing his thoughts further and further from center spoke again.
Why not, Joel?
Joel nodded to himself.
Vivian looked behind her at Joel as she finished stacking the dishwasher. She stopped in mid sentence realizing he hadn’t heard a word. He stared at her but through her, that insipid smile plastered on his heavy jowled face. His thinning hair in need of a good combing.
God only knew where he thought he was when he went into that trance. Vivian shook her head and turned back to the dishes. That smile of his was the most aggravating. She would need to bring him back to reality so he could get to the office on time.
The office! Oh, what would she do when he retired in two months? He was home more than ever before as they wound up his position and transferred his accounts to others. Soon he would be home all the time and more able to poke his nose into everything. Already things she had been doing just fine for thirty-five years now needed his input and approval.
Her world was being invaded.
On his way to work Joel daydreamed about the top of the stairs scenario again. It brought a smile to his face, but it was no good. There were ways for them to find out if a person had been pushed or not. The way they landed, how far down they went before hitting, the force they hit with. It would never work. He watched CSI, he watched Law & Order, they always caught the killer.
The same could be said of his Jacuzzi fantasy. He often thought about knocking the radio she always listened to into her daily bath, that would do the trick. He had seen it on some old detective show. Columbo? Murder She Wrote? Something like that. In the end, of course, they had caught the murderer.
Clubbing her with a shovel and burying her in the woods had its appeal, but there would be one microscopic trace of blood and that would be that.
Joel’s smile faltered. He would never survive prison. Sixty-year-olds didn’t go to prison, they played golf and puttered around the house. He would be dead of a heart attack before the trial was over.
His cell phone rang, Jason’s picture on the display.
“Hi Dad. How’s everything going?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Mom still getting on you about stuff?”
“You have no idea, Jace. Today she blew a gasket because I was cleaning stuff in the kitchen. Who gets mad about something like that?”
“I hear you. Well, soon enough it will just be the two of you all the time.”
“I know.” It came out as a weak whisper.
“Remember to take your heart pills.”
“Are you and mom still coming tonight?”
“We’ll be there.”
The daily calls from his son were a godsend. Jason understood how Joel felt about his life. Jace even listened about his mother, knowing what she was like, pointing out things to Joel that he hadn’t noticed.
Vivian stood at the top of the stairs looking down into the basement—Joel’s man cave, as Jason had dubbed it. Cozy leather recliners, large-screen television and a home theatre system that shook her china cabinet when he watched a movie.
At the bottom of the stairs she reached up and unscrewed the light bulb that lit the staircase. Back at the top of the stairs she emptied a bag of their grandson’s marbles and watched as they rolled down, listening to the sharp clunk-thunk of them falling. Some rolled to the bottom, but not all.
She closed the door to the basement and went about the rest of her day.
On the way home Joel felt his calm starting to slip. The weekend was the worst and pretty soon it would be all weekend all the time. Usually he would have had paperwork and phone calls to take care of at the end of the day, now he was going home early.
What could he do? Murder? Didn’t have the guts for that. Divorce? He would lose everything. Nothing? A life of desperation and misery.
She sank down in the Jacuzzi tub and listened to the talk-radio show as the hot water enveloped her, making her skin sting deliciously. A routine she looked forward to every day, that never failed to calm her down.
When she got out she would clean up the marbles on the stairs and screw the light back in. She sighed to herself as calmer reasoning got the better of her. She had made it this far, she could make it a few more years. The way Joel ate, it wouldn’t take that long.
Her phone on the side of the tub rang.
“Hi, Mom. How’s everything going?”
She smiled at the sound of Jason’s voice. “Oh, you know.”
“Dad’s impending retirement still stressing you?” Jason’s tone was light.
“A little.” She groaned. “Today he was cleaning the lawnmower blade in my kitchen sink.”
Jason laughed. “Well, not much you can do about it, the retirement I mean.”
“Pretty soon it will just be the two of you all the time.”
“Are you and Dad still coming tonight?”
“We’ll be there.”
The little daily phone calls from Jason really helped. He understood how she was feeling and listened to her bitch about his father.
She closed her eyes and saw Joel’s face with that vacant grin staring at her.
Joel walked up the stairs to the second floor. He could hear the CBC radio show she loved so much mingling with the hum of the Jacuzzi motor. One of her middle of the afternoon baths. At the top he turned and went into the bathroom. She opened her eyes and jumped when she saw him.
“Sorry, just getting my nail clippers,” he muttered.
“You’re home early.”
Joel shrugged. He rummaged through the medicine cabinet.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“Watch a movie, I guess.”
He turned to leave.
“No, wait!” She pulled herself up to get out of the tub.
He stopped and watched her, unsure of what was going on in her mind. She was moving fast, rushing. With one foot out of the tub she slipped and everything started moving slow. The back of her leg hit the radio on the side of the tub. It slid and teetered on the edge a moment before falling into the water. Vivian jerked as the house current coursed through the water and into her body. The breaker tripped and the room went dark. He heard her pitch backward and fall into the full tub.
His first thought was: No one will ever believe this.
His second: Get out and come back later!
He shook his head. He’d passed Bill next door, even waved at him, on the way in. If they were a happily married couple this might be believable but not them. They had loud, angry fights every couple of days now.
He would go to prison.
For something he hadn’t done.
This wasn’t fair.
A squeezing tightness in his chest crept through him and he wandered out of the bathroom to their bedroom. He pulled the neck of his shirt—so tight—and fought for breath. A cold sweat crept across his forehead.
He pitched forward onto the floor of the bedroom, thinking that a heart attack might just be a believable alibi.
Jason looked at his father, face down on the bedroom floor, and walked over to the man. He was still breathing, which was a surprise. He knew the old man was due for a heart attack but thought that it would happen faster. He looked over at the phone that had been pulled from the wall, the cord in his father’s clenched fist. No wonder it kept going to the answering machine.
But where was his mother?
He pushed the bathroom door open and recoiled at his mother in the Jacuzzi, showing far too much of her naked body. She was obviously dead. The radio was plugged into the outlet next to the door, the other end floating in the tub, mercifully obscuring one lower part of his mother’s anatomy.
So he’d finally done it. He knew Dad was close to doing something stupid. A few well-placed daily comments from him had helped keep the pot stirred. A few more to Mom made sure she wouldn’t take any of Dad’s crap. Gentle nudges, always subtle.
Jason smiled to himself as he went back to the bedroom and sat on their bed looking at his father. Still some shallow breaths.
Shouldn’t be long. By morning it would all be his.
The house was worth a small fortune, and long ago paid off, which would net him some good cash once it was sold. No rush there, he was willing to wait for the right buyer. They had some stocks, too, which had been bought low but leaped up in value.
Jason headed downstairs to the kitchen and grabbed a beer from the fridge, then reached for the door to the basement. He would go watch a movie on his father’s large-screen TV—also his now—before calling 911. His smile faltered as he flipped the switch with no result. He shrugged, visualizing the spot downstairs where his father kept the bulbs. He’d been down there enough to be able to do it in the dark.
Jason took the first step.
* Vacation was originally published in the anthology Of Stars & Science: Tales of the Multiverse. It was a great collection of alternate reality stories. A lot of my earliest stories came from the thought of "What's the worst thing a person could do in this situation".
By John Haas
Rob Mason stood inside the small apartment entry, keys dangling from his fist. It was perfect, what he would have had if not for Lisa and the kids. An apartment instead of a house, less but so much more. He closed the door, twisting the bolt to lock it, and wandered into the kitchen. In the fridge he found cold beer with a note stuck to it in a familiar scrawl, one word: enjoy.
The bathroom was his next stop. The sink wasn’t cluttered with bizarre feminine items, only soap and a cup. Enough space for his stuff. Each room he wandered through took more weight off his shoulders. The bedroom had a solid wood king-size bed squatting in the middle with a long bureau to the right that almost matched. Man furnishings instead of married-couple items. Married-couple items which means the woman decides what their ‘style’ is and the man picks up the bill.
What a system.
He flopped down on the couch in the living room that doubled as a small office.
Bobby Mason entered through the front door into his beautiful two storey house and stood looking around the same way another Bobby—sorry, Rob—a world away was doing.
He smiled to himself and ran through his new family. Lisa—wife. Robert Jr.—age fourteen. Amy—age twelve. Easy enough, names he liked. He’d seen the pictures and read the information from their own Rob during the debriefing.
The house was quiet.
“Lisa?” He called. “Kids?”
No answer. He tried again a little louder, then decided that he was alone. Good. Now he would have time to familiarize himself with the little things. Wouldn’t do to not know where the plates were, or how the coffee maker worked. Then he could get down to the most important thing about the vacation, a second chance to live a normal life.
He headed down the hallway. A quick walk around the downstairs showed him what he had expected: everything tasteful. Family pictures on the shelves and artwork on the walls, wine in the kitchen and potpourri on the coffee table.
Everything went together but wasn’t what he would have picked himself.
Upstairs, the master bedroom was decorated with nothing remotely masculine, and he shook his head when he looked at the sheer amount of stuff on the sink in the en-suite bathroom. That would take getting used to. He had a strange moment when he found he didn’t know which side of the bed he slept on. A Stephen King novel on one side and a Heather Graham on the other solved that problem. He picked up the King book and read the back, chuckling at the fact that it had never been published on his world.
Apartment Rob was thinking much the same thing as he flipped through the CD collection in the living room. He had the same taste as his counterpart but there were small differences. An album that had different cover art or an extra song. In one case a whole string of albums from what he knew as a one-hit wonder. He selected a disk by The Clash and pressed the power button on the multi-disk player only to find it wouldn’t turn on. With a shrug he wandered through his apartment wondering what to do next. A strange, overwhelming sense filled him as he concluded he could do anything, but had no idea what he wanted to do. This was a freedom he hadn’t felt since before he got married, fifteen years ago. A freedom that dwindled more as the kids were born, eating away at his time and energy and money.
That life was a world away, literally, it didn’t matter anymore. He opened the fridge and grabbed one of the beers, his favourite brand. Rob peeled the note off the beer and stuck it to the fridge door. In an ironic parallel action, he had left a surprise for his counterpart in the basement freezer.
Rob went into the office/living room and sat at the desk with the beer in his hand, trying to get an idea of Bobby and what the little differences were. Where had their two lives diverged? Had Bobby never met Lisa? Was it that simple? Or was it more than that, many little differences adding up? No real way to know most times, according to the Vacation Bureau.
“The Vacation Bureau.”
The phone had rung one day while Rob was sitting at home alone, an occurrence so rare he almost didn’t ruin it by answering the phone. But he did answer and that changed everything.
The voice on the other end of the phone told him he had won a special vacation. Something about the voice made him play along instead of hanging up. God knew he could use a vacation. They gave him just enough information to get his attention, pretty soon he was hooked. Vacation totally paid for. No seminar to sit through. Nothing to buy. Guaranteed something he would never be able to get again for any price. What the hell, he’d agreed to come to their office and see their vacation consultant, a title that somehow appealed to him. If it was truly a free vacation then he would take advantage of it, if not he would figure it out quick enough and be out of there.
The travel company was on the top floor of a fifty-storey office building. When he stepped off the elevator into the lobby he felt his breath taken away. From the elevator doors he could see through a massive, rounded one-piece window that showed the whole city. Rob stepped over to the window and pressed his face against the cool glass, looking down at the busy city streets. The city looked different from up here. The buildings. The geography.
Behind him, past the elevators, was a large lobby desk with a pretty receptionist who smiled at him as he wandered toward her. A beauty to be sure.
“Mr. Mason,” she responded. “Yes sir, we’ve been expecting you.”
He nodded but something just seemed a bit odd. Not enough people around, maybe. Too quiet. And the look the receptionist gave him felt like she knew him down to how much change was in his pocket.
“Can I get you a coffee?”
Rob nodded, shaking away the feeling.
“That’s right. How...?”
“Lucky guess.” She gave him a wink.
Rob watched the receptionist walk away then turned and dropped into one of the black leather chairs and picked up a magazine. Some satirical thing called Stuffed, some blatant rip-off of Mad Magazine, complete with a character that looked a lot like Alfred E. Neuman.
The receptionist returned with his coffee and another man close behind.
“Mr. Mason,” he began. “So nice to meet you.”
Rob shook hands with the man and followed him down the hallway.
In the meeting room Rob took a seat across from the man at the circular, solid wood table. The chairs were plush leather that sunk under his weight. Wood wall panelling matched the table. He realized the man had never introduced himself.
“What do you know about alternate realities?” the man asked.
Rob stopped his coffee cup at his lips and stared at the man who waited politely for an answer, looking for all the world like he had just asked Rob about the weather.
“Strange question, I know, but bear with me please.”
Rob went through the route back to the elevator in his head. “Well, an alternate reality is science fiction. A world where things turned out differently than they did in the real world. Harry Turtledove stuff.”
The man was nodding. “Close enough. What if I were to offer you a vacation in another reality, one where you exist but where your life took a much different route?”
“I would say thanks for the coffee and I really have to go.” He said getting to his feet.
The man didn’t make any move to stop him, just smiled and gave an oh well shrug. Rob had the certainty that he was doing exactly what was expected, which bothered him. He didn’t like being predictable. But the alternative was to sit back down and listen to this man’s science-fiction delusions. He made a decision and turned on his heel, heading for the hallway. As he stepped through the door he almost collided with himself.
“Excuse me...” He started.
According to science-fiction beliefs you wouldn’t recognize yourself if you bumped into you while time travelling. Mostly because you have a romantic rather than realistic idea of what you look like, but also because you are the last person in the world you ever expect to bump into. In a flash Rob knew the idea was crap, he recognized the face on the man in front of him. He also realized that the other him wasn’t surprised in the least.
“So, is this the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you?” the man asked stepping past Rob into the meeting room.
Rob stared. He took one step back inside, staring at his twin. The man was fit, in much better shape than himself. Better haircut and an expensive suit with a name tag that said Dr. Robert Mason. Rob was certain Robert was wearing the tag only for his benefit.
“You’re free to leave, of course, but I can promise you will miss the opportunity of a lifetime,” Robert said.
Rob walked over to himself in a fog. The man with no name excused himself and left the two alone. Robert was quiet, waiting, sipping the coffee he had brought with him. Rob picked up his own abandoned coffee and gulped the cooling liquid.
“Take your time.”
Rob nodded and turned back to his twin. “Okay, explain.”
Robert smiled and leaned forward in his chair with mannerisms and facial expressions so familiar.
“The quick story is I’m you, but from another world. I believe you’ve already guessed that much, though. Vacation Bureau is a company I created with the idea of providing a spectacular new way to take a vacation. Imagine going to a world where dinosaurs still live, or where there’s no intelligent life and Earth was a vast Garden of Eden. I’ve seen both of those realities, by the way.
“Right now we’re still in the research and development phase. We have a lot of testing to do on the machines before we can use them commercially. The ultimate idea is to use this as a clandestine vacation alternative for people. Very rich people.”
Rob was quiet, wondering where his life had diverged with this man’s to create such a radically different outcome. He knew little about science, just high school stuff. He wouldn’t know where to start on an idea for alternate realities, that was for sci-fi novels and episodes of Star Trek.
“So what does this mean to you, right?” Robert asked. “Well, if you are interested, you will be able to switch places with another you from another Earth and take his place for one whole week while he takes yours. This counterpart would be from a world where your life took a different track resulting in a different life.”
Rob leaned forward on the meeting table, listening to Robert’s every word. A smile had formed on his face that he wasn’t even aware of.
Bobby headed down the stairs to the basement. The stairs were carpeted, bending around in an L. At the bottom the first thing he saw was the long black chest freezer sitting against the wall that matched the appliances upstairs. A small set of abandoned weights with a thin layer of dust rested against the opposite wall. He almost turned back but since he was already here, a quick look wouldn’t hurt. On the other side was a doorway that led to an unlit room. He flicked the light switch and stepped inside. His mouth hung open in stunned awe.
In the middle of the room was a pool table with the balls set up for a game, green-shaded lamp hanging low over the table. Behind was a projector screen and a wall full of movies all in front of a huge leather recliner sofa. A video game system with many games, some of which he had never seen. A bar with everything he could imagine to drink and a fridge.
He might not leave this room for the next week.
Bobby reached across the bar to grab a glass and jumped back when he felt the pressure against the button in his pocket. It wouldn’t do to press that by accident. He thought back to the last conversation with Robert at the Vacation Bureau.
A questions had been nagging at the back of his head. “What if everything goes wrong while I’m there?”
Robert Mason nodded as if that was the right question. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a little box with a thumb sized button on it, then slid it across the table to Bobby.
“You’ll be given one of these. I call it a panic button. If you don’t like the way your temporary life is going you hit the button and you’re back home.”
Bobby looked up at Robert.
“That one is mine. You can never be too careful.”
Bobby slid it back across the table.
“If you had pressed that button like you briefly considered it wouldn’t have done anything. It’s tuned to me and since I wasn’t holding it...”
Bobby nodded. “Why are you doing this?”
Robert Mason smiled as if trying to gather his thoughts.
“Well, a few reasons. Most of them commercial but one personal. I guess you could call this a pet project. When I started looking into other worlds I saw what other Robert Mason’s lives were like. I was appalled at how unhappy and petty they were, present company excepted.”
Bobby waved the apology away. He had no illusions about his own life.
“I want to fix that, to give something to all the Robert Masons out there whose lives went in a different direction.”
Bobby compared his life with this man’s and gave up after a depressing moment. “Okay, anything else I need to know?” He asked Robert.
“Oh yes, lots of stuff. But the most important is if you or the person you are switching with should die during the week.”
Bobby waited, feeling the hair on the back of his neck prickling.
“If you die while living his life he’s stuck in yours. And vice versa.”
Robert held up his hand for patience.
“Think of it this way: If your counterpart should happen to die in front of one witness, how could you possibly return to your life? How could you explain your miraculous return?”
So if his counterpart should die while living his life then Bobby got a new life. A second chance. He tried hard not to smile, his mind whirling and planning.
“Well, that does make sense doesn’t it?” Bobby said. “Perfect sense.”
Rob scanned the office wondering what to do first. He sat in the chair and spun around to the computer. It might be interesting to surf the net and see what differences there were in this world. Then again, he might just head out and see what he could see of the night life.
Maybe making a list of everything he wanted to do would be a good place to start. Rob found a pen and paper in the middle drawer. Rob rocked back in the office chair and put his feet up on the desk. The list he made was three pages long. He would need months to do everything and by then more things would be added. He tossed the pad and pencil on the desk and looked out the window at the neighbourhood below him. He was on the ninth floor, which gave him a good view of the surrounding area. Better than where he had grown up but not as nice as where he lived back home by a long shot. Fine by him. Looked like there would be a lot of life out there.
Without thinking he reached out and grabbed the drawer on the left that he hadn`t opened yet. Locked. Curious, he turned his attention toward it. Why would one drawer be locked? Was it because of him? Who else could it be?
He pulled the middle drawer open again and rummaged through the assorted office supplies until he found the thin letter opener. Rob jammed it into the cheap desk lock and twisted until he heard a scrape then a snap of thin metal breaking.
Inside were two clear bags of white powder. He knew little about drugs but guessed it was cocaine. He stared at it a while longer, bewildered. It was so far off the mark for who he was. Oh, he was no angel, not by a long shot, but he couldn’t imagine how he had gotten involved in drugs. And this wasn’t a user’s amount, this was what a dealer had on hand. How had life diverged that much…
It had to be Dave. On his Earth Rob had grown up in a rough neighbourhood with his best friend Dave. Dave still lived there, and had gotten into dealing drugs. After meeting Lisa she had forced Rob to cut ties with Dave. On this Earth he must have joined with Dave instead.
Easy enough to prove. Rob opened the drawer on the right where he had seen an address book. He flipped through it looking for Dave’s name. Sure enough, there he was. Only on this Earth he wasn’t a single, Dave had & Amber next to his name. There were also several red pen lines drawn through the listing.
Rob grabbed the cordless phone from the cradle next to the computer and dialled the number in the book. It rang four times and just as he was sure it would go to the machine it was picked up.
“Hello Bobby,” a woman’s voice said from the other end.
Good old caller ID. No secret calls these days.
“You know damn well it is. I told you last time to never call Dave again. He’s out of that life and until you are too you aren’t welcome here.”
“Are you out of that life Bobby?”
Rob stared at the two bags of powder.
“Well, no. But…”
He was talking to a dial tone. If he had been this Earth’s Rob he would have been pissed. Most of all he was just astounded that his life had taken this route, even on another Earth. He was a drug dealer! Without Lisa he would have ended up this way.
That hit him. He’d always believed he had gotten himself out of the old neighbourhood but it was her. Her influence, her drive.
A sudden image came of Dave and Amber’s house crammed full of married-couple items and a bathroom sink taken over by creams and lotions. Rob hung up the phone and reclined in the desk chair, his gaze resting on the drugs.
Not good. Why had it been left in a drawer so easy to find? Why hadn’t Bobby gotten rid of it before he switched? And most important, how did this Rob get rid of it before someone came looking for it? That was a jarring idea. Would someone come looking for it? Of course they would. Worst of all, he would be too entrenched in the organization to get out. This wasn’t the life he wanted.
Rob fingered the panic button in his pocket, debating whether or not to use it before pulling his hand free. That wasn’t really an option, Jim would be arriving at his house soon. He softly cursed the man whose identity he’d assumed.
But, a drawer full of drugs meant there was cash here too. And with cash he would have a way out, but he would have to move fast. He started searching, first the office then working his way through the rest of the apartment. Every cabinet. Every container. It would need to be in a place where the other Rob could have gotten to it easy. But where?
His eyes landed on the CD player that didn’t work and something clicked. He grabbed the top and pulled it off with ease. Inside was more than what he had hoped for. Stacks of cash, fifty thousand. More. Enough to get out of town and make a new life for himself. He let out a long ragged breath. That was more like it.
He was looking for a bag for his money when an insistent pounding started on the front door.
Bobby looked up from the pool game at the sound of the doorbell. He strolled to the front door and opened it, smiling at the man on the other side.
He stepped back to allow his father-in-law to enter the house. Silently he thanked his counterpart for providing a list of all his extended family, with pictures. Rob had describe the man as a harmless old crank who sometimes got confused about what was going on around him. Best thing to do was play along.
Jim stormed past him and entered the hallway.
“Where is she?”
Rob shook his head. “No idea, Jim. She and the kids were gone when I got home.”
“Got home? Why are you even here?”
Bobby tried to play along with the man but didn’t know how to respond. He stammered something that wouldn’t make sense to anyone.
“Oh yes, I know all about it,” Jim continued. “She called me after you left last night. Told me everything.”
Jim nodded and stepped close to his son-in-law.
“Everything. And if anything has happened to my daughter you will pay.”
Bobby shook his head and took a step back. What the hell...? “Jim, I didn’t...”
He stopped, realizing that he didn’t know what had or hadn’t happened.
“I never liked you. You’re a chicken-shit little punk who was never good enough for my daughter.”
Jim turned and stomped away through the house.
“Lisa? Where are you, honey?”
Bobby touched his panic button. He didn`t want to get involved in a domestic struggle but he couldn’t just give up either, not with what waited back home. Instead he followed Jim through the house.
“Jim, I’m telling you...”
Jim gave him a withering look and kept going. He circled the downstairs level then mounted the stairs and searched the second floor.
“See, Jim. She just isn’t here.”
Jim didn’t even look at him as he pushed past and returned to the ground floor. Something was off here. The confused old father-in-law was misinformation, that was evident. This man wasn’t confused, he was desperate, and dangerous. Jim came around the corner and headed for the basement with Bobby—thinking about all his options—four steps behind him. At the bottom of the stairs Jim stopped, a sob caught in his throat and he spun back on Bobby, a gun materializing in his hands.
“What...?” Then Bobby saw it. A dark, wet handprint against the freezer’s black finish.
Rob stared at the door and the pounding beat that played against the other side. He peered through the spy glass in the door.
Oh you bastard. You stupid drug dealing bastard. Now look what was happening.
“Open up, Bobby. We know you’re home.”
Of course they did.
Rob pressed his head against the door trying to gather his wits.
“Open the door or we break it down.”
Rob spun on his heel and raced back to the office. If he could get the powder to the bathroom... Behind him the door was given a solid kick and crashed against the inside wall.
His hand shot into his pocket, fingering the panic button. What could he do? He couldn’t go back, but he couldn’t stay here. Could he bluff them?
Rob kicked the drawer closed and rushed back to the front door as two tall, beefy cops stormed through. They looked more like soldiers than policemen, down to their serious tight body armor.
“I would have opened the door,” he began, trying to sound indignant.
One cop pushed him aside while the other kept an eye on him.
“Hey! Do you have a search warrant?”
The cop keeping an eye on him chuckled. “He wants to know if we have a search warrant,” he called to the other cop.
“Come on,” Cop two said and pushed him toward the living room where the first cop had disappeared.
Rob played along, confidant he could explain the money on the table but both cops ignored it. Cop One went to the desk and started opening drawers. They knew what they were looking for and where to find it. Cop one pulled out the drawer of drugs and dropped it on the table next to the money. He opened the thick mylar bag and stuck a finger in, tasting it briefly.
“Cocaine,” he confirmed.
Cop Two shrugged and turned back to Rob. “Bobby Mason, you are found guilty of the capital crime of drug dealing.”
Rob felt the world spinning away. His hand rested near the pocket with his panic button. Going back wasn’t any better than staying here. At least here a smart lawyer might get him off.
Something clicked. “Capital crime?”
“Sentencing to be carried out immediately.” Cop One said.
“Proceed.” Cop Two answered.
Cop One pulled out his sidearm and shot Rob through the forehead. “Sentencing complete.”
Rob hit the floor with his right hand jammed into his pocket.
Bobby’s eyes cycled between the handprint, his father-in-law and the gun that was pointed at him. He added everything up and was pretty sure he knew what would be inside the freezer. His counterpart had set him up, just as he had called the police with a drug tip before he had left. They both wanted a new life.
Bobby calculated he could get back home and flush the drugs before the cops got there. That was his best bet. But right now he had a gun pointed at him and his hands up.
Jim reached out with his free hand and pulled up on the lid. Locked.
“Where’s the key?” Jim asked, the gun pointed at Bobby’s chest.
“I don’t... I...”
The older man spun the gun toward the freezer and shot the built in lock. The roar in the enclosed space was deafening. Bits of metal spun away in all directions.
Bobby ignored the ringing in his ears and stuffed his hand into his pocket, pressing the button hard.
He pressed it again, and again, knowing it was hopeless.
Jim bent over the freezer and though Bobby couldn’t hear it he saw the man’s sobs. His heart broke for Jim but it didn’t change anything. Bobby bent down and grabbed one of the weights on the floor, a ten pounder. He rushed behind Jim and slammed the weight into the back of the man’s head. Jim slumped forward into the freezer on top of his daughter and two grandchildren. He stared at the bodies in the freezer and felt tears in his eyes.
“Sick murdering bastard.”
Of all the dirty things he had done in his life, he had never murdered anyone that didn’t deserve it... not until Jim. He felt for a pulse in his Jim’s neck then grabbed the man by the legs and tipped him into the freezer.
After the lid was down he rested with his hands against the freezer thinking. The panic button hadn’t worked so he was stuck here. This was his life now, though not the way he had planned it. Not the fresh start he had wanted.
Sirens wailed in the distance. Whether they for him or not he couldn’t tell, if not they soon would be. It was just a matter of time.
Doctor Robert Mason sat back in his office chair and rocked, laughing to himself. These two hadn’t even lasted a full day.
He wiped the tears from his eyes as the laughter ebbed. Tapping on the computer he searched for the next two Robert Masons to contact.
* This story is one that I always rather enjoyed. I had fun writing it and I have fun with people's reactions. It's one of one a few mysteries that I've written and was published in the Anthology of Cozy-Noir published by Darkhouse books.
The Last Dinner
By John Haas
Richard Lassiter took in the luxurious table settings in the spacious dining room. Fine china, polished silver, white linen table-cloth with matching napkins, and all of it for chili. He appreciated the irony.
For the last two decades Richard had been Sam Carter’s bodyguard and all-around man Friday. The bodyguard duties were light—animal activists demanding to know how many cows Sam had murdered, or enthusiastic foodie fans wanting his autograph—but he kept an eye on those closest to Sam too. It was an occupational hazard not to trust anyone but he could swear he caught fleeting looks, like young lions waiting for the father of the pride to grow weak.
Every June Sam invited the executives of Carter’s Chili—mostly family—to the mansion for a long weekend. The first night was for trying new recipes and while Sam concerned himself with chili, the others spent their time impressing Sam with their love and loyalty. No one wanted to be forgotten when it came time for the will, especially now.
Six months ago Sam had been as healthy as any other forty-five year old. Then the memory problems came, along with muscle spasms, occasional confusion, disorientation. Within two months Sam was confined to a wheelchair, no longer having the coordination to walk. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease—a horrible, wasting violation that attacked the brain and spinal cord and in its more rare variant was believed to be contracted through eating contaminated meat. The human equivalent of mad cow disease. Sam’s executives had made sure that fact stayed away from the media. The rumors alone would sink the company.
The guests drifted into the dining room, each of them early for the eight o’clock dinner. Richard greeted them as they entered—Sandra, Sam’s second wife; Brent Lewis, the business partner; Sam’s brother Daniel, sister Loren and her husband Oskar. All of them involved in the business one way or another, except for the sister whose pride was too fragile to work for her little brother—but not so fragile she wouldn’t marry his marketing executive. No kids this weekend. In the past the mansion had been open to everyone’s children too. Sam loved them dearly, but he couldn’t face them this time, not even his own sons.
Guests in place, Richard exited the dining room and returned pushing the wheelchair. Sam slouched in the seat, muscles jumping under his loose shirt. He frowned at the group as if they were strangers before a smile came to his face. The expression was a mockery of the vibrant man they had known, but Sam still lived in those eyes. “Thank you all for coming” he said with heavy, slurred speech.
Richard took his place behind Sam; this meal was not for him. He observed his employer and friend, heeding Sam’s order on staying alert for the more extreme symptoms of CJD: Dementia. Personality changes. Hallucinations.
Richard had urged him to cancel this year’s gathering but Sam wouldn’t hear it. Sam Carter did things his own way, from business to personal dealings, and that had made him wildly successful. Behind each decision lurked a well thought out reason, no matter how bizarre or incomprehensible it might seem.
“One last dinner,” Sam said.
“Ah, don’t talk that way, Sam,” Brent said in his sonorous voice. “We’ll be doing this again next June, and you’ll be sitting right there.”
Sam was quiet a moment. “Maybe,” he allowed. “Maybe. People with CJD sometimes survive as much as two years.”
Was that a worried look on Daniels face, covered in a blink? The brother fidgeted in his seat. “Good,” he stammered. “That’s good, Sam. By then there might be a cure.”
“Hah!” Sam’s brief cackle was unlike him. He paused, calming himself. “No, Danny. No cure. No hope.”
Daniel watched his brother a moment before dropping his gaze.
Heavy silence pressed in on them until Loren rushed to fill it with her usual mindless chatter and self-promotion. She started with talk about their parents and time growing-up; how she had been a second mom to her younger brothers.
“Yep,” Daniel said, “she ordered us around whenever Mom was too busy,”
A storm cloud crossed Loren’s face and her mouth snapped shut. Daniel kept the conversation rolling, adding how much he idolized his big brother, and how grateful he was to be in charge of the financials at Carter’s Chili. Loren’s husband, Oskar, did his part, talking about the direction Carter’s Chili would take in the coming years. Sandra, Sam’s wife and HR director, rested her hand on Sam’s, an expression of deep affection on her face.
The door to the kitchen opened and rich aromas of chili powder, beef and cumin filled the dining room. Servers brought bowls of steaming chili and deposited them in front of each person. Corn bread, shredded cheese and hot sauce were placed in the center of the table.
The group turned to Sam. Usually he had a few words to say on the chili but this time he was asleep in his seat, spoon beside his full bowl. After glances at each other they started eating. Sam came in and out of dozing as they ate until the very end when every bite was finished and they were exclaiming how great this latest recipe was.
“My apologies,” he explained. “Tired so often now.”
Sam made a gesture and Richard stepped forward, grabbing the back handles of the wheelchair. He turned Sam and the chair toward the door.
“Bed for me,” Sam said as they exited. “Stay. Eat.”
Daniel closed his laptop and peered out the window into the deep darkness. Rain had arrived in a steady beating drone sometime during dinner. After the perfect day of heat and sun it seemed like a gloomy omen, matching Daniel’s mood.
His fingers drummed against the computer, his mind digesting the high priority e-mail he had read. It was official: they were four months away from the financial audit at Carter’s Chili. Four months until they discovered Daniel’s creative accounting. Sam wouldn’t go easy just because Daniel was his brother. When the truth came out Daniel would be headed to prison. Four months to fix it. Inheritance money would allow him to replace the money, or get the hell out of the country and disappear.
He’d observed Sam at dinner, weighing all the symptoms: muscle spasms; slurred speech; instances of confusion, like Sam didn’t know where he was. And Daniel wasn’t sure who Sam thought he was fooling with that wig, but the rug on his brother’s head was pretty obvious—an effort to cover ugly surgical scars he guessed. Of course no one here was going to point out the emperor’s new clothes. The end result of Daniel’s symptom tally was that Sam was declining fast; but was it fast enough? He’d done his research on the disease and knew two years was a pipe dream. Six months was possible though, and that would spell disaster.
He truly did love his brother, but Sam needed to die, and soon.
“I fucking hate chili,” Oskar complained from the en-suite bathroom as he attempted to brush the taste out of his mouth.
Loren removed her panty-hose on the bed. “You did well, I wouldn’t have guessed you were hating it.”
“Hmph, I pretended each spoonful was a million dollars,” he said around the toothpaste.
“We’ll have our bite soon enough.”
“No. If he died this minute it wouldn’t be soon enough. I hate chili on these weekends. I hate chili when I have to visit the restaurants. I hate it when we test the canned shit at work.”
“Inevitable part of the job,” she said.
Twenty years ago he had joined the fledgling restaurant as its entire marketing department and been instrumental in expanding from a Texas-based fast-food chain to the international phenomenon Carter’s Chili had become. Recently they had started canning and selling the chili in the supermarket. That idea, worth millions, had been his ten years ago.
Loren tossed him a roll of antacids.
“Thanks, ” he sighed. “This is the only thing I eat more of than chili.” Oskar crossed the room and plopped next to Loren. “Are you sure he’ll be dead soon? I can’t do two more years. I can’t. Maybe we should... you know.”
“Can’t say it?”
Oskar just stared at her. It was one thing to hate your job and your product, it was quite another to kill your employer, but that’s what they had planned before this illness came along. An accident, a hit-and-run--
“He’ll be dead soon. One way or another,” she said.
The antacid in his mouth tasted like chalk—an improvement. He grabbed a magazine, headed for the bathroom. “Chili. The meal that keeps on giving.”
Loren closed the door to the bedroom as she left. Having shared a home with Oskar for more than ten years she knew she didn’t want to experience the aftermath of chili.
The familiar fury seized her as she wandered the halls of the mansion. Her and Oskar’s split-level bungalow was nice and new and modern but next to Sam’s home it was a crap-shack.
Her brother brought them here to gloat, revenge against the bossy older sister who had made him toe the line growing-up. No. No, his success was revenge, these weekends were for rubbing salt in the wound.
She’d been the big sister, the one who had gone to university, gotten good marks and been the good girl. Sam had bummed around Europe for more than a year after school, then came back and started a business that was doomed to failure. But it hadn’t failed. She should have been the success story, instead she was only Sam Carter’s sister.
When Sam was in the ground and the inheritance was in her hand she could stop playing the loving sister. The end was in sight but that only made each minute more agonizing than the last.
The rain outside the window fell in buckets while Sandra lay, naked, under the sheets of Brent’s bed.
“Miserable night,” he said from across the room.
“Good reason to stay inside.”
“Oh, did I need another one?”
Sandra pulled back the sheets and patted the mattress beside her. Brent came over and crawled back into bed. “Something wrong?” she asked.
He hesitated. “He looked like hell tonight, didn’t he?”
“Oh, yes,” Sandra agreed.
The thought of his oldest friend dying in this house should have filled him with sadness, but all Brent could think of was how much easier it would be once Sam was gone.
“Why Brent, are you contemplating the demise of my dear husband? I am shocked.”
“Dear husband?” Brent snickered. “Come here, I’ll give you something that will shock you.”
Later they resumed their conversation.
“Five months now he’s been sliding downhill,” Brent said.
“Can’t be much longer, my love. Then it will all be ours.”
“All of it?” Brent raised one eyebrow. It was what he wanted, what he dreamed of, hoped for. Controlling interest in Carter’s Chili, but more than that, it meant Sandy would be all his.
“Of course,” she agreed, slipping into his arms. “At the funeral you’ll stand next to me, arm around my shoulders, comforting me. I’ll be quite distraught, inconsolable really. The will comes next and we’ll see how much he’s left me. It will only be natural that we spend time together as you help me adjust. Then, after an appropriate amount of mourning, we bring our we-never-expected-this-to-happen relationship public.”
“You’ve thought of every angle.”
“I have indeed.”
“Have you considered what to do if he hangs on too long.”
She nodded. “I have a couple of ideas on that. Stairs are not a friend to a man in a wheelchair.”
Brent traced a line along the side of her body as she spoke.
Sandra let herself into the dim hallway. She peered behind her at the shadowed, snoring lump under the sheets. Brent was a dear, and a lot of fun in bed, but after she had Sam’s money and business to herself she wouldn’t need a man again...well, except for the obvious reason and Brent could still fill that need if he liked. She would need him on board until she was established as the new boss, but marriage? Never again. As it was, she felt like some animal with a paw caught in the steel trap jaws, ready to gnaw it off to escape. Well, escape was close, she could smell it. And like the aroma of something you cannot quite have, it was maddening.
Like Brent said, she had thought of every angle. The only problem was it was taking too damn long.
But in the end Sam’s death took less than three months.
Richard led the way to the entertainment room. The lawyer, Colson Manchester, followed close behind, black leather briefcase hanging by his side. A distinguished older gentleman who reminded Richard of Matlock, only without the cherubic craftiness. In the room the lawyer set about his tasks, turning the entertainment system on and inserting a DVD.
“A video?” Richard asked.
The lawyer nodded and continued while Richard sank into one of the chocolate brown leather couches arranged in a u-shape. A will reading. Manchester said these were the stuff of bad television. It was a testament to Sam’s theatrical flair that they were all called here today. What Sam wanted he got, even in death.
Richard contemplated the familiar room. Today would be his last day as a resident of the house. After the reading of the will he would go upstairs, collect his things and be gone for good. Sandra Carter had informed him his services would no longer be required and with Sam gone he was happy to leave.
As if called by his thoughts, Sandra bustled into the room, Brent Lewis close enough to be her shadow. Brent headed for the bar in the corner to pour himself a drink. On the way back he collided with the corner of the pool table and sloshed some onto the carpet. The two took places on the next couch over, not even acknowledging Richard’s presence. Sandra, dressed in black, pressed her ever present tissue to her eyes though Richard saw no sign of actual tears. Within minutes Daniel, Loren and Oskar arrived, having let themselves in as they never would have a week ago. And just like that, the house was no longer Sam’s.
Manchester looked around at the group. “Well, to make this even more interesting,” he started in his slow drawl, “Sam gave me a video to play with explicit instruction that no one, not even myself, was to view it before today.”
Richard laughed then gave an apologetic wave as everyone turned toward him. It certainly was like Sam to be so dramatic. He imagined there would be several instances of Sam telling people what they needed to hear before handing out inheritances.
“I have the paper will, all legal and witnessed, but the video has some extras—as Sam put it.” Manchester stepped back, pointing the remote.
On the television Sam’s face popped up. A somewhat healthier Sam, sick, but still a good month away from the wheelchair.
“Hello everyone,” Sam said in slightly slurred speech. “Thank-you for coming.” He chuckled then took a drink from the water glass next to him. “Okay, so I can hear you all now: Why the hell are we here? Well, you know why. You all want to see how much.” He rubbed his fingers and thumb together, then held up a hand. “I know, I know, not what you mean. You want to know why you’re here, watching a video, instead of doing this the regular way—the proper way, as my sister might say.”
Loren ignored the glances sent her way, sitting ramrod straight and staring at the television.
Sam leaned forward and gazed into the camera. “We’re doing it this way because I want to, because I’m rich, and because I have some things to say. Now, Colson has my encouragement to pause this any time you people get unruly.”
Sam’s muscles twitched and he observed the spasm, curiosity on his face, then looked back to the camera with a shrug. “First things first—soon, there will be a murder.”
The room plunged into complete silence. On screen, Sam waited for his revelation to sink in.
“Murder?” Manchester asked, bewildered. “Who’s murder?”
“His own,” Richard explained.
He examined the others, looking for some sign of guilt, some tell. Who would risk everything to speed Sam’s death by a couple of months? Nothing in anyone’s reaction made them seem more guilty than another. And if Sam had seen it coming, why hadn’t he told Richard?
The lawyer paused the video. “I think I should call the police.”
Was it possible for the room to get more quiet? Richard stood and crossed the room, positioning himself in front of the door. “Not yet, Mr. Manchester,” he said. “I think we need to hear more of what Sam has to say.”
Violent crime was outside of the lawyer’s field of expertise and Richard could see the man’s brain working. What did he really have to call the police with? A suggestion of murder. He wouldn’t want to appear foolish. Manchester raised his hand and pressed the play button.
On the screen, Sam gazed into the camera lens. “I think I can guarantee a confession before I’m done, but we’ll come back to the topic of murder later.”
Richard relaxed his stance, curious about how Sam intended to get that confession.
“So, you’re wondering about the will, about who gets what. Yes, of course you are. Okay then, let’s get started,” he chuckled, taking his time.
Loren tapped her fingers against the arm of the couch in an impatient, muted thumping.
“Richard first. Richard, you’ve been by my side for two decades, protecting me and being a wonderful friend. You’ve lived in this house as long as I have. Stay. It’s yours now, along with everything in it and enough money to cover the taxes, if you decide to keep it.”
The house? Richard couldn’t speak. Sandra shot him a glare of pure venom. She would be the one leaving, not him. But he felt like a fraud taking the house when he couldn’t stop Sam from being murdered.
“Next come the kids. My sons Andrew and Sean; Sandy’s kids Oliver and Megan; Loren and Oskar’s kids Tim, Tegan and Tiffany—why you would name your kids in such a way I never understood—Daniel’s daughter Maria; and Brent’s kids Laura and Mark.” A short pause and a mischievous smile. “To them I leave all of my money, every penny divided equally and put in trust until they reach the age of twenty-one.” Another pause. “That’s right people, you aren’t getting a cent.”
Thoughts of murder were forgotten as the room exploded with outrage. Richard was quiet. Watching. Studying.
“I’ll contest the will,” Sandra spat, “see if I don’t.”
“That’s right,” Loren said. “He obviously wasn’t in his right mind. Not his fault of course, that horrible disease.”
Manchester raised his hands, trying to stop the conversation from running away. “I assure you, the will is legal. Sam made it while his mind was perfectly sound. You may contest it of course, but it will hold up in court. As Sam’s executor and lawyer I’ll make sure of that.”
So the man did have some Matlock in him. All the family members were on their feet, the noise increasing as each person tried to talk over the others. On screen Sam waited, not yet paused.
Unbelievable. Richard stepped forward and gave a long, shrill whistle. They turned toward him as one, staring at the outsider. “I think you’ve all forgotten Sam’s accusation,” he said. “One of you is a murderer.”
“He’s right,” Daniel admitted after a moment. “But whichever one of you killed my brother, your kids would still get their inheritance. Maybe that’s why Sam did it this way.”
“Whichever one of us?” Brent said. “What about you?”
“I loved my brother.”
“And he was my best friend.” Brent boomed.
The group degenerated into a storm of shouts and insults.
“Quiet,” Sam yelled, waving his hand from side to side. “I’m not done.”
Richard watched hope creep back onto their faces. Manchester had the remote pointed at the player but the group quieted enough to catch Sam’s next words.
Sam mimicked, hands to his face. “Oh, why did he do this to us, his loving, loyal family?” He peered into the camera again. “You all thought I was a prize chump.”
A mask of “who-me?” innocence was plastered on each face as they uncertainly retook their seats.
“Oh, I was a prize chump for a long time, honestly taking you all at face value. Then I discovered something.” Another dramatic pause. “ Brent, how long have you been banging my wife?”
Sandra and Brent glanced at each other, then away.
“Rhetorical question. At the time of this recording it’s been two years, seven months and a few days.”
Sandra muttered something again about contesting the will but with less fire. Brent kept his eyes on the TV.
“Once I found out my wife and best friend weren’t who I thought, I started examining the rest of you. My brother Daniel, always so grateful for the job at Carter’s Chili and the chance to prove himself. Daniel, how much money have you stolen from me? By my calculations it’s somewhere around two million dollars.”
“I—I didn’t—I— ” Daniel stalked to the back of the room, away from all the eyes.
“That leaves Loren and Oskar. Oskar, it’s obvious you hate chili, and Loren it’s obvious you hate me,” Sam chuckled at that bit of cleverness, “but, neither of those is as deplorable as, say, a long affair or embezzlement.”
The couple sat straighter, an air of superiority in Loren as she scowled at the others.
“However, the two of you spent most of last year plotting the best way to kill me. You really should delete your e-mail messages more often. Loren, you’re smarter than that.”
Loren was on her feet, purple with rage.
“This disease must have seemed like a gift,” Sam continued.
“That’s right, you bastard,” she spat, “and I hope it hurt like all hell was tearing you apart.” Oskar’s hand touched her arm and she dropped to the couch, glaring hatefully at Sam’s image.
“Each one of you hurt me deeply, betrayed me. I hope you all have the self-respect to not deny the things I’ve said. Doesn’t matter, the proof is in a sealed envelope in Colson’s possession.”
The lawyer gave a brief nod of confirmation when they looked his way. On screen Sam held up his hands for peace. “Give me a few more minutes. We’re not done yet and you will want to hear the rest.” He took another drink.
The mood in the room was foul, everyone sitting in their own private gloom while staring at the television. With the secrets Sam had revealed any one of them would have been justified in storming out—or at least trying to get past Richard to leave. One of them had to see if they were revealed as the murderer. Did the others stay in hopes of getting a share of the as-yet-unmentioned company?
Sam took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “I guess you’ve seen the symptoms of CJD first hand. I sure hope so. The lack of coordination, muscle twitching, speech impairment. The confusion, disorientation, nervousness. Perhaps even personality changes and dementia.”
Loren smiled at the list of symptoms.
“Variant CJD, the type I have, comes from eating contaminated meat products and is extremely rare. Less than a hundred people in the world have it. Do any of you wonder how I contracted such a rare disease?”
Pow! And that was it, Richard saw the whole picture. That’s the murder Sam was talking about. Someone had infected Sam.
“Contaminated meat,” Sam repeated. “It took me close to a year to track down the infected tissue samples I wanted. In the end, it was easier to get it from a man with the disease than from a cow.” A pause. “I paid generously for that brain sample and brought it back home.”
More finger thumping by Loren.
Where was Sam going with this? How would this expose the guilty person?
“Then I infected myself.”
Loren`s fingers stopped mid-drum. Everyone stared and Sam stared back. Out of the corner of his eye Richard could see Sandra turn to look at him. He knew she would have that smug smile on her face and thoughts of contesting the will in her head. It didn’t matter. Richard felt sucker punched.
“Why would you do that?” Sam whispered in mock horror. “Fair question.” He seemed to gather his thoughts, took a deep breath and continued. “I have a brain tumour. It’s big, it’s inoperable and it’s killing me slowly.”
Richard scrambled to catch up, the understanding he was so sure he had a moment ago had dissipated like smoke. He leaned against the wall beside the door.
“Before our next dinner, I’ll be having an operation. My doctor will remove a chunk of my tumor—the part he can get to without killing me. I’ve told him it’s for study by a private lab after I’m gone, and he assures me that I will still be able to function once it’s removed.”
“After that I will come home and work on a special batch of chili for our upcoming weekend. My last chili. And on that night each of you, except Richard of course, will eat the new recipe with my...special ingredient.”
Special ingredient? What did...?
Loren lurched to her feet gagging, then vomited on the carpet in front of her. Tears flowed down her face as she made retching sounds again and again. “Fucker,” she managed between heaves. “Fucker!”
“Yes, by the time you see this you will all have had exposure to a contaminated product—my own brain. It will be far too late to get it out of your system.”
Manchester looked appalled and disgusted, the remote forgotten in his hand.
“Why would you do that?” Sam repeated in his whispered voice. “Well, I could have infected all of you with the sample instead of myself, but I want you to see the symptoms of this horrible disease as I die. I want you each to know what to look for in yourself. Mostly I want you all to hope that maybe, somehow, you are the one the disease will skip over.”
“You bastard,” Sandra gasped. She got to her feet, sat down, then stood again, her hands pressed against the sides of her face.
“How about it?” Sam continued. “Any coordination problems? Slurred speech? Muscle twitching?”
“No!” Daniel shouted from the other side of the room. “No. Not me.” He bolted for the door but before passing through it he stopped and turned back, a pleading, anxious look on his face. Was he hoping for a revelation that this was all a joke? A hoax punishment for their indiscretions?
The first stage of grief is denial.
“Now, one last item to take care of. I leave Carter’s Chili, divided equally among you five betrayers. I imagine once word gets out that the executive board is dying of CJD the stock won’t be worth a damn anyway.”
Loren shot a glare of absolute loathing at her dead brother and turned for the door, sweeping a lamp off an end table as she went. At the exit she turned back, mouth open but no words coming, the fury obvious on her face.
Oskar headed for the bar in the corner, then stood there with a different, unopened bottle in each hand. His gaze of disbelief was fixed on the television.
“You couldn’t have just divorced me?” Sandra wailed. “You...” She stopped, hearing the slur to her speech. Was it just the anger? She smoothed her blouse, turned and left the room.
Brent watched her go, quiet, making no effort to move or speak. One hand, clenched into a fist in front of his mouth, he waited for Sam to continue.
“So in the end, I wasn’t only the killer, but the weapon as well.” Sam said.
Richard got to his feet, heading for the door. He didn’t need to hear any more, these words weren’t for him. Still, as he passed Sandra, leaning against the wall outside the room, he could hear Sam’s final words chasing him down the hallway.
“There’s your murder, five of them actually, and the confession I promised too. Call the police, I won’t run.”
* Tracks first appeared in the anthology Paranormal Horror 2 back in 2014. I'd written in about ten years earlier for a friend as a birthday present and it fit nicely into the anthology. It also kind of works in everything happening today.
by John Haas
George was wrapping up with his last customer in the little town of Blackwater when the first racking cough hit him. The store owner, Mitch, set an appraising eye on him.
“Got to watch out there George, flu’s going around.”
George shook his head. “Nah, just a cold.”
Mitch shrugged and handed the signed order form back to George. As an after-thought he reached under the counter and came back with a small blister pack of two blue pills. “These will help.” Mitch said.
George took them and looked the pack over. No writing on it anywhere. He looked back up at Mitch.
“Well it ain’t Viagra.”
George laughed and popped the two pills into his mouth. A swig of water from his bottle washed them down.
“You can thank me by getting my order here on time.”
George laughed again and put the forms into his briefcase. A wave to Mitch and he stepped out onto Blackwater’s main street. A little bump in the road town far off the beaten path but, between Mitch’s Corner Store and the restaurant down the street, they bought their fair share of supplies. He tried to pass through here and see them personally at least once a year.
The winter air had a sharp snap to it that hurt George’s lungs when he inhaled. A slate gray color painted the sky and warned of more snow coming. The street lights along main—all three of them—had already come on. He would be in full darkness long before reaching the interstate.
It would be smarted to stay the night and avoid the weather but then he would miss Jenny’s birthday tomorrow. He needed to be there. George was on the road enough without missing a birthday.
As he headed for his car he noticed he was alone on the street. No people heading for the stores, no kids playing on the way home from school. The restaurant had been almost empty when he visited it too, just one old man at the counter slurping soup. With a shrug he tossed his briefcase into the back of the car and eased behind the wheel of his Honda Accord. His lower back groaned at being bent to the shape of the seat. A new ache in an aging body.
Two loud sneezes that turned to another cough. George whipped out his handkerchief and blew his nose. The car started up easily and he leaned his head back against the headrest, gathering the energy for the trip home.
The snow started to fall, thick and wet, on his windshield before he pulled away from the curb.
It was late, well past midnight, and George just wanted to get home… should have already been there in fact. He was sick, and feeling sicker with each passing minute. Colds always seemed to hit him like a three hundred pound linebacker. And to make his misery perfect, the snow that started to fall as he left Blackwater had escalated into a blizzard. Visibility was low, the snow coming in at a slant toward the windshield as the wipers fought to keep up. The slippery two lane blacktop was slick with previous snowfall, the sides barely visible. His headlights showed two thin tire tracks of a car that had passed shortly before. George pointed his car at the ruts and followed them even as the driving snow tried to fill them.
Those pills Mitch had given him had been drowsy formula, he realized it now as he fought to keep awake. George was in no condition to drive and he knew it; but he also had no choice.
The snow hurtling at his windshield had a hypnotizing effect on his drugged and drowsy brain. Still, through that fog, he knew he had to keep up to the tracks. If they filled in there would be no way to know he was still on the road.
George turned the radio on to a low hiss of static then roamed the range of stations—nothing. Had he done this before? He snapped the radio off.
Mile after mile he followed the tracks that wandered through the snow ahead of him, leading him… Where were these tracks leading him? They should have reached the interstate by now. Were they heading to another out of the way hole in the road town?
George sighed and mopped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve.
It didn’t matter where they went. He couldn’t head back now. It was either follow those tracks or pull over and wait for the storm to pass, and if he did that he would be asleep in minutes and dead by morning.
No one would miss him right away. Rachel would assume he`d stayed at a hotel, even with Jenny’s impending birthday. The people in Blackwater wouldn’t miss him, he wasn’t a local.
Fear of losing the tracks crept into his tired mind. His foot pressed down harder on the accelerator and the Honda’s back end fishtailed in response.
With effort he kept the car pointed in the right direction then forced himself to slow down to thirty. Losing control would be the same result as stopping.
So difficult to think.
“No need to think,” he muttered. “Just follow the tracks. Easy peasy.”
He felt a kinship to the man ahead of him. They were in this together, even though the man didn’t know George was there.
“Well friend, it’s just you and me.” He muttered as his hand reached for the radio knob. “Let’s get out of this white wasteland.”
Peter—as George had started to call him - must know this back road pretty well to be on it tonight. Must be a local. Then again George was on the road too and he didn’t have a clue.
Was he just following some idiot off into the woods? Was Peter just rambling along hoping to get onto the interstate at some point? Would Peter drive right off the road and into a ditch with good old trusting George following until the bitter end?
George’s hands gripped the steering wheel. Sweat poured down his face. A headache had formed at the back of his skull, just above the neck, and did a pounding beat that matched the thump-thump-thump of his windshield wipers.
Every few minutes the fog crept across his windshield, the defroster unable to keep up. He swiped at it frantically with his handkerchief, trying to clear up his view of the road.
What the hell was Peter doing on the road this late at night in a blizzard anyway? Who in their right mind drove in this kind of weather? Was that it? Was Peter less than sane?
His headache had stretched around to the front of his head and pulsed with an unholy rhythm. The fever baked his brain and if he had any subjective thought left he would have realized that his cold was the flu or worse.
Blackwater was a strange town too, wasn’t it? Very backward. George always thought of Mitch and the others as interesting characters, but was it more like dangerous lunatics? He’d read his share of Lovecraft while on the road.
No children around. Many of the residences had all of the curtains drawn and the lights off. What was going on behind all of those closed curtains? Had he seen something he wasn’t meant to see? Something secret.
Was Peter… leading him somewhere?
He let out a short laugh that had no humor in it. It sounded crazy but sometimes the crazy things weren’t so crazy. Crazy things happened every day.
George reached under his seat and grabbed the tire iron he kept there, putting it on the passenger seat beside him.
Just in case.
Then again the town might be just fine, but maybe there was something wrong with Peter. Peter could be an escaped murderer or a lunatic from an asylum. It would explain why Peter was out here on such a night. Peter was running.
What would happen if he caught up with Peter?
George took comfort stroking the cold grey tire iron.
A hard gust of wind blew at the side of his car without warning, forcing it to shimmy to the right. He hit the brakes and steered back toward the center, the tak-tak-tak of the ABS chattering at him.
“And maybe Peter isn’t alone.” George said without missing a beat of his inner conversation. “Yes, that was a possibility.”
Even through the fever George shivered and pulled his coat closer around him. He had the heater jacked up to maximum.
They would know he was here behind them. Know he had been following them.
“It wasn’t fair. I’m just trying to get to the highway. To get home.” Tears welled up in his eyes, doubling the tracks.
Well, they weren’t catching him by surprise. He couldn’t stop following but he could be ready for it when it happened.
He put the tire iron in his lap.
When they forced him to stop they would expect him to be surprised, to just give up. Well, they were the ones in for a surprise.
The car sat across the road as he came around the curve, facing back towards him. The headlights aimed at George’s car. It looked like the car had skidded and gotten stuck in the snow.
The Honda’s lights caught a human shape standing next to the car, arms waving. George slowed to a stop several feet away and got out, pulling his coat tight around him with one hand. His other hand clutched the tire iron behind his back. Snow pushed past him in white swirls as Peter came towards him. A tall slim man wearing only a thin jacket and running shoes. George’s headlights lit the man garishly, creating heavy menacing shadows. George’s eyes scanned either side of the road looking for the others.
“Hello Peter.” He said as the man reached his car. “Where are they?”
Peter opened his mouth to reply, still playing the part. Even as the tire iron raised above George’s head the man looked as if he were about to speak.
“Maniac!” George cried as he brought the long bar back down toward Peter.
A mile or so behind George was another vehicle, this one a black Lincoln Navigator driven by a doctor. He’d been in Blackwater treating an outbreak of flu that he’d never seen before. Abnormally high temperatures. Painful headaches. Raving hallucinations. It struck the young and old first. He had quarantined several houses before leaving.
Doctor Wells turned the heat up in his SUV for the third time. He knew he was sick but he had other problems right now. The tracks he’d been following for the past few miles might have been made by someone… unsavory.
He reached over to his glove compartment and grabbed the pistol he kept there. He put the gun on the seat next to him.
Just in case.
* Dolly first appeared in Writer's Haven #14, an online magazine. I always rather liked this one. It was inspired by the old House of Mystery and Ghosts comics that DC put out years ago.
By: John Haas
Dolly Madison, first lady to the United States of America, gazed with love at her rose garden. She had planted it not so long ago and the roses thrived, better than expected. This was a comforting spot, a place to be away from the busy life that came with her position. Not that the responsibilities of first lady were not enjoyable, she was only too happy to take care of the entertaining and the keeping of the house for James, just as she had for their friend Thomas during his time as president.
To the left, out of the corner of her eye, she was aware of two groundsmen watching, waiting. They remained a respectful distance from her and the garden. In a few minutes she would allow them to get back to work, but for now she would take the luxury of the garden’s peace.
It seemed of late she found herself back at the flowerbeds quite often, not knowing how she had come to be there.
“Silly,” she scolded herself. She came here to forget, then when she did she tried to remember.
A rose on the right needed attention and it made her wish for her shears. She turned toward the groundsmen only to find herself alone. Where had they gone? With a shrug she bent over to smell the roses, a soothing scent.
“Mrs. Madison.” A voice said.
Dolly turned to see a tall bearded man, wearing a long black coat and matching hat. On another man It might have appeared odd, not quite matching the day’s fashions, but it suited this man.
“Yes? Do I know you?”
“No, ma’am, we’ve never met. I recognized you though.”
Dolly smiled. Of course he recognized her. “Who are you?” she asked the man.
“My name is Abraham Lincoln, ma’am,” he hesitated a moment. “I’m the president.”
“The president?” she laughed, thinking it a strange joke. Then she noticed the earnestness on his face. This poor man honestly believed he was president. “I’m sorry Mr. Lincoln but James is... James is...”
Dolly turned back toward her flowers, confused. James is president, was what she had wanted to say, but a vague memory had stopped her. It pushed through a fog she hadn’t realized surrounded her thoughts. A memory of the day they had left the White House, turning it over to Mr. Monroe.
Why was she here then, if James wasn’t president?
“Please, don’t go,” Lincoln said softly.
Dolly turned her attention back to the tall man. Go? Why would she leave? She had come to see her roses. Yes, the flowers. That was why she was here.
“Do you remember?” Lincoln asked.
Dolly shook her head once, though she did remember something now. James was gone, as was their home at Montpelier. She had sold it many years after James death. She gasped.
“What year is it, Mr. Lincoln?”
“Well ma’am, the year is 1865.”
1865? She would be almost one hundred years old. “I...”
Was that why she had trouble remembering? Age? Dolly looked at herself, at the white dress and the hands which weren`t as old as they should have been. She turned away, toward the roses.
“Please don’t go,” Lincoln repeated.
Dolly turned back toward the man, this president who was not her husband.
“I have something I need to tell you.” Lincoln’s hat was in his hands, long fingers rotating it by the brim.
Confusion and uncertainty mounting inside of her she nodded.
“Mrs. Madison,” he said with a gentleness that didn’t match his size, “I regret to be the one to bring this news, but, you’re deceased.”
“What?” Dead? The man was mad, a lunatic.
Then the fog around her dissipated and more memories came unbidden. Copying James’s letters for congress. Returning to Washington. The friendship of Daniel Webster. Her final... “Dead?” She asked.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry. I’ve noticed sometimes spirits don’t know when they are dead and need the fact pointed out to them.”
She shook her head, these were memories she didn’t want. The fog was already, mercifully, pushing back in toward her and soon she would forget again. “You don’t seem worried being with a ghost, Mr. Lincoln.”
He gave a dry chuckle. “No, ma’am. My wife and I have experience with this sort of thing.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy stood at a window in the White House watching the rose gardens. Once again he saw a tall man in a stove pipe hat which could only be Abraham Lincoln talking with a woman in white. He shook his head—no one would ever believe this.
From the corner of his eye he caught some movement, near the doorway.
When he turned, the person was gone.
* Dead by Dawn first appeared in the anthology 100 Doors to Madness. It was a fun collection of horror flash fiction with the longest story being maybe 5 pages. This was my second story sold but the first one to actually see publication.
Dead by Dawn
By John Haas
Connor Evans watched the desert drifting past his window in the darkness. Mile upon mile of sand with no end in sight, a long highway cutting through it. He wondered how many people had died of exposure out here. The idea hit him quick, making him gasp.
So many ways he’d tried to end it since Penny was killed. Bullets. Stabbing. Drugs. Each time he was ‘saved’. Time there would be no mistakes, not if he had the strength to get started.
The car bounced through the desert, throwing him against the seat belt with every lurch. The vehicle had not been made for off-roading. A long metallic scrape came from somewhere underneath and a minute later the car did one last jump then shuddered to a stop. He’d made it all of one mile from where he`d left the road.
Outside Connor watched the vehicle’s inky life-fluid spreading away from the bottom of the car. Still, a good sign. If the car could receive death here then so could he. Connor patted the hood and turned, heading east across the sand toward his last sunrise. The heat of the desert had dissipated with the coming of night, though Connor was long past the point where he noticed the temperature around him. The hunger though, that was another thing. With each step he was reminded his last meal had been two nights ago. Head down he forced himself forward. Soon, hunger would be a thing of the past.
His watch said the time was five o’clock. The point of no return had been passed hours ago and he experienced a freedom knowing the decision was now out of his hands.
Why hadn`t he thought of this as a solution earlier? Connor immediately shook his head, knowing why. A blind fear had been bred into him since his ‘birth’. The very idea of this was so abhorrent to his mind it rebelled whenever he examined it too closely.
This would work. His body’s instinct for self-preservation wouldn’t help here.
The fear came a half hour later, surging until all he could feel was the need for flight. Connor glanced around him at the surrounding desert as if for the first time. He reminded himself of why he was here.
How long would it take? Would it hurt? He settled onto the top ridge of a sand dune and waited for his final sunrise.
From the east the first rays came over the horizon and touched his skin. Though it seared him, baked him, cracked his skin, it was the most beautiful thing he had seen in a long time.
Then he was gone. A man shaped outline of dust lay on the dune a moment until the desert wind blew it away.
* BB and the Pigs first appeared in Grimm & Grimmer volume 3 and was the first story I ever sold. Dues to problems the publishers had it actually became my second story published, but it gave me confidence that I could indeed be a writer.
BB & the Pigs
by John Haas
The wolf walked along the forest path toward the little village. A sparse settlement of assorted people and creatures living in small, hand built but sturdy houses. BB enjoyed the early spring day though there was definitely rain in the air, and not too far off by the smell of it. He wanted to be home before it hit.
Big Bad, or BB to his friends, was okay with his nickname. To be honest, he deserved it, and understood why others still called him it. It had been years since he had seen the girl in the red hood. It had been a bad time and she had gone about tempting him in a way she knew he wouldn’t be able to resist. Really! Showing off what she was carrying in that picnic basket. Meats. Pies. Cookies. All sorts of things that a young wolf, thinking with his stomach, would be interested in. And, if he was being honest, he had been naive and stupid back then.
In the end he had done his community service and made his apologies. The grandmother and the woodsman healed just fine and ended up relocating to another valley together. Go figure. She seemed old enough to be his grandmother.
BB was much better now. No more urges, court appointed therapy had made sure of that. He still had a temper when dealing with stupid people so he avoided them as much as possible. He was a new wolf now.
Today he was on his way to Mrs. Hamms to get a cup of sugar. His mother was baking pies for her reading group and had run out. Always willing to help out his mom he had volunteered to get it. He reached out with his big hairy paw and knocked on the door of the small cottage. A breeze pushed the flowers beside the door back and forth as if waving.
“Hi Mrs. Hamm. Mom called about borrowing some sugar.”
“Oh hi, BB. Yes, I just called her back to say I didn’t have any after all. One of the boys must have taken it.”
BB groaned inside. Speaking of dealing with stupid people. He didn’t like her kids. Two slackers and a know-it-all. He had gone to school with them. They were the type to egg him on then, when he retaliated, tell the teacher.
“They’re building their own houses. Such clever boys.” She said. “They took all sorts of stuff to get started.”
BB nodded, forcing a smile. As if there was an actual possibility of two of the three building anything. She pointed him in the right direction.
In a little clearing not far from the cottage he came to the first of the pig’s houses. He stopped in shock and let out a howl of laughter. The first brother had built a house all right, in shape at least. It was made from straw by the looks of it. One strong gust of wind and it would come down around his ears. He didn’t think it would be long, either – the wind had picked up and the rain had started.
“Ugh. I wanted to be home before…” He sighed.
BB rushed forward, the rain matting his fur. Not a warm pleasant summer rain to walk in but an early spring rain, closer to winter. Lightning flashed across the sky. He reached out and knocked gingerly on the fragile door.
“Little pig, little pig, let me come in.”
He looked up at the sky. Lightning flashed again, this time straight at the straw cabin. BB saw a metal antenna on the roof, acting as a lightning rod. As he watched, sparks struck up a fire on the thatch.
“Little pig!” He cried louder.
“Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.” The pig squealed from inside.
“Idiot! Let him burn.”
BB made to turn away, then hesitated. No. He couldn’t do that. Blasted therapy.
He could kick the door down but that wouldn’t save the house. He had an idea…
“I’ll huff and I’ll puff…”
He took a deep breath. A sprinter by nature and a swimmer for fun, BB had a strong set of lungs. The house was flimsy, a hastily built pile of hay. With the smallest help from the growing wind, he blew the whole thing down.
“Ah! Big Bad Wolf!” The pig screamed and ran away into the forest.
He rummaged through the remains of the crap shack. No sugar. With a sigh he followed the pig’s trail into the forest.
The second house was a clapboard nightmare. It looked to be made from the remains of orange crates and wood from shipping pallets. It was cheap, built with great speed and no skill. Barely more than a lean to.
BB knocked hard on the door. The whole frame shook. It rattled with each gust of wind.
“Little pig, little pig, let me come in.”
“Not by the hair on my chinny chin chin,” two voices answered in unison.
Slacker one and slacker two.
To hell with this. He would just go to the store and buy some sugar…
“Arghhh!” He’d left his wallet on his dresser, and howled in frustration.
Groaning loudly he turned to go home. Then he heard the singing. A song that had plagued him through the last years of high school.
Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,
the big bad wolf, the big bad wolf.
Who’s afraid if the big bad wolf.
Then came laughing and BB saw red. One hard shove…
The wind beat him to it. With a howl, one particularly heavy gust blew the house down, burying the occupants. BB leapt forward. Ignoring the splinters, he grabbed the jagged planks and threw them aside.
This was insane. A minute ago he had been ready to knock the house down himself, yet all he wanted was a cup of sugar. He felt like he was back in school with these two knuckleheads.
Finally, he uncovered the pair. They lay side by side, looking up at him in terror. Identical even down to the way they dressed, he still couldn’t tell them apart even after all these years. One of them pointed, and yelled. ‘He blew your house down!’ Then he scrambled to his feet, and ran for the forest, closely followed by his twin. BB felt a thrill of satisfaction at their fear but quickly crushed it, knowing it would take him somewhere he wasn’t willing to go.
Maybe he could catch them up and explain what happened. Their mother could attest to why he had gone to their houses. He toed through the debris in hopes of finding the sugar.
The third house was constructed of bricks. Well made, professional. Good work but nothing less than he expected from over-achiever pig. His least favorite of the three. The brains, the one who had made up every mean little plan they’d ever launched against him.
He went through his regime of mental relaxations as he crossed the clearing toward it. He knocked as politely as possible upon the door. This time he didn’t even get to speak.
“No way wolf.”
Then they sang that song again. Loudly.
“All I want is some sugar.” He called. “Your mother sent me.”
Enough was enough. All this for some sugar? He was leaving.
From the window they made faces and laughed.
“Sugar.” He yelled at them.
One pig mooned him and everything went dark in his mind.
He was dimly aware of trying the front door. When he found it locked he started trying to blow the house down. Insanity. Then he was on the roof. What was he doing up here? He should get down before he fell. Below the pigs squealed out something and laughed some more. Little mean piggy laughing.
Then more singing.
The chimney. He could get into the house that way. For a long moment he just stared at it. He could get inside and teach those three a lesson, not just for today but for everything they had ever done in school.
“I should just leave.”
Almost without volition, he watched his paws take a hold of the lip. He swung a leg over into the opening. Part of his mind told him it was a bad idea; the rest said to get inside and slap the bacon boys around a bit and take the sugar that had caused him so much trouble. Without further thought, BB jumped down the chimney, ready to confront the pigs. Ready to do more than that, in fact.
Unexpectedly, he didn’t land with a thud, but a splash. He was in liquid. Hot liquid.
Boiling, in fact.
With a yell, BB jumped out of the pot. He fell on the carpet and the three little pigs rolled it up, with him inside. He thrashed helplessly, yelling about sugar and wind and lightning, while the pigs sang and danced round him in a circle.
Then the police arrived.
“So you see officers, that’s the whole story about how I came to be here. I was only trying to get a cup of sugar.”