Monday, April 30, 2018

#043: BACK IN BLACK




I FLOATED GENTLY IN a place I called the Black.

The Black is not an easy place to describe. Well, that’s not quite true. I mean, on the surface anyway, it’s pretty simple. The whole of existence, everything around me, as far as the eye could see, was black nothingness.

Void.

Stretching out into forever.

Okay, imagine you are in a vast open space. But you aren’t standing, or sitting, or even kicked back in one of them sweet beds that you can raise and lower. No, you are floating, weightless. There’s nothing above you, nothing below you. All around you is just this space.

But you can’t see it. You can only feel it because everything around is black. Like blacker than the darkest night.

You can see yourself, no problems there, but if there was anything else out there in the black void, you’d never know.

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything else out there. Not physically anyway. I mean, I’ve seen things in the back. Some mundane, some better left unspoken. But I’ve never felt their presence, not in a physical sense. I’ve always chalked it up to my brain playing tricks on me.

I waited patiently in the Black, floating in the void, watching for the way out, which would always come. I was in the Black for a reason, and that reason was Mike. He had tried to kill me.

But I didn’t die.

See, I have this special ability.

Some people can sit down at a piano for the first time and just play. Some folks can take a bite from a cookie and know exactly which ingredients were involved in its making. Even others can move stuff around and bend spoons with their brain.

Me?

Well, I can’t die.

I’m pretty sure anyways. I have to admit that when it comes to why I’m still alive after over a century, I don’t know an awful lot.

What I do know is this: I heal quickly. Cuts seal in seconds and bones mend in minutes.

I’ve never put a bullet to my brain to see if I’d survive, but I’ve sustained what would be life threatening injuries a time or two. When I do, I don’t die. Instead, I am taken to the Black. And it’s there that I wait.

As much as I appreciate the fact that I don’t die, I don’t particularly like being in the Black. When I said that there’s nothing else out in the void except for me, I meant stuff like trees and mountains and dogs and stuff. But spiritually... Okay, see, whenever I’ve been sent to the Black, which has happened more often than I have fingers on one hand, I can sense something in there with me. A presence. Something alive. Sentient.

The presence urges me to go deeper, to give myself to the void. But I can’t do that.

Sometimes the urge, the call, it’s weak. I can feel it out there like the wings of a butterfly.

Other times it’s like one of them heavy metal singers screaming into my brain to let go.

It’s not easy to resist either, but I’m afraid that if I give in and let go, I may never come back. And between you and me, I ain’t ready to give up on life just yet.

So I fight it. Whatever it is in the void that pulls me further in, I fight and I wait for the light that is the doorway back.

This time, the urge wasn’t strong. Not at all. It was out there, flickering along the edges of my senses, but I found that I could ignore it with little to no effort.

I can never be sure how long I’m in the Black, not until I come out, time is relatively meaningless in the void, but eventually the light appeared. I swam toward it and slid through, back into the world. Back into sound and color and smell. I’m not always glad to be back.

I slid back into the world to the sound of chanting. I opened my eyes.

I was looking down into the arena. The altar was back in the center of the arena floor. Mike stood next to it. His arms crossed over his chest and his eyes staring blankly into nothingness.

Cleon stood in front of Mike, his tattoos glowing as he smiled the kind of smile that bad guys like to tack onto their face when they think they’ve won. I was looking forward to blasting that smile off of his face.

Two rows of monks, twenty-six in all, stood parallel to each other, creating a Soul Train dance-line leading to the altar. Two other monks guided Maggie between the lines. All of the monks were chanting something low and dark. I couldn’t quite make out the words, probably Latin.

The monks in the stands were quiet as they watched, most sitting on the edges of their seats. Waiting in breathless anticipation for the ritual that would give them more power. Power to do what, I hadn’t the slightest.

I was up among the monks in the stands, strapped to a chair in the very box Cleon had been sitting in when Mike had ‘killed’ me.

Mike has known about my special skill for a while now. Had Mike truly wanted me dead, he could have crushed my bones into dust. Something I’m actually not one hundred percent certain I could come back from. The thought made me shudder.

But no, Mike didn’t crush me. Instead, he squeezed me like one of them snakes, constricting my breathing until my heart stopped and I ‘died’. Meaning that there was still a bit of Mike left in there.

Cleon also seemed to know about my special skill, hence the reason I was strapped to the chair. He’d known that I’d come back and he wanted me tied up, as it were, so that I couldn’t interfere with the ritual. He wanted me alive, though. Which I found disturbing.

The High Priest could have buried me, set me on fire, or cut my head off. But instead he strapped me to a chair in the stands. He wanted me to watch.

So, since I had nowhere else to go, I watched.

The chanting stopped as Maggie was presented to Cleon. Her hands were behind her back, so I couldn’t see if they had bound her or not, but I figured it wouldn’t be long until they strapped her back to the altar.

I was bound to the chair by wide bands of leather. I pulled against them, straining my arms. Pain lanced through my right side. I’d almost forgotten about the dislocated shoulder. Sure, I heal up quick, but unless someone pops my shoulder back into place, nothing about it is gonna heal.

“Great Asterion,” Cleon called out, his hands held high. “Please accept this sacrifice of flesh, bone, and blood in your name. We pray that you will find us worthy and bestow upon us the gift of everlasting life—”

I tried my legs, but couldn’t move them any more than my arms.

“—and the power to change the world in our image. Do you accept this sacrifice in your name, mighty Asterion?” Cleon continued.

Cleon’s skull tattoos glowed as Mike said: “I accept your sacrifice in my name.”

“Bring the sacrifice to me that I may anoint her in the sacred oils.” Cleon said.

The box I was in was near the top of the stands. There was a small wall, about a foot tall, in front of the chair. From the box to the stands below I figured it was about a ten to twelve foot drop. I thought maybe, if I threw my weight forward in one, quick motion, that I could roll out over the wall and crash to the stand below and smash the chair up in the process.

It would hurt, I’d probably break a few bones, maybe even drive shards of splintered wood into some of my more delicate areas, but it was the only plan I had.

The two monks brought Maggie forward. She stood now just inches from Cleon. I made ready to drive myself over the wall when she looked up and caught my eye. She winked.

I froze, more than startled by the gesture.

Cleon held a round clay jar above Maggie’s head, and as he was about to tip the contents over her head, she did something I was not at all prepared for.

She hit Cleon squarely in the jaw.






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Thursday, April 26, 2018

#042: THE BALLAD OF JACK DUNN




NIGHT HAD FALLEN BY the time Jack took the Desoto exit from Highway Ten.

It had been an eventful thirty-six hours for Getter Dunn. He hadn’t had this much to do since… well, since the last time he’d worked for Mr. Lemonzeo.

Yesterday morning, after driving the Walrus back to Eudora and handing over the sedan to the mutant hit man, Jack had gone to see his old boss at the Pub.

It was like he’d never left. The Boss looked as he had five years ago, maybe a little harder around the eyes. But then, he’d been in prison.

There were differences, of course. Not everything could remain the same.

First off, Mr. Lemonzeo had quit smoking. Not an easy task. Jack should know, he’d been trying for twelve years now.

The other big difference was the Boss’s new man. Jenner.

Jack didn’t like him. Not at all. There was something about the man that rubbed Jack the wrong way.

Jenner was polite enough, and respectful of Jack’s past with Mr. Lemonzeo, but just being around the man made his skin crawl. But he could work through that. After all, working for Abner Lemonzeo meant the occasional deal with monsters.

The Boss had caught him up on the agreement he’d made with the vampires. Jack had known that a group had set up shop in Eudora over the last few months. He still had his ear to the ground. But it had meant little to him. He’d moved on.

But now…

“I have another job for you, Jack,” Mr. Lemonzeo had told him this morning over breakfast.

Jack had stayed the night in Eudora, bunking up in one of the many spare rooms at Mr. Lemonzeo’s house. It was how they did it back in the day. The Boss had a few trusted individuals in his inner circle, and Jack had always been one of them. Those lucky few had lived with the Boss in his house out in the country. It made sense. Someone of Lemonzeo’s caliber needed round the clock security.

But the inner circle had been more than hired guns. They were often encouraged to give their own thoughts on matters, to speak their minds. The Boss was unique in that way for someone who ran a criminal empire. He inspired loyalty not by fear, nor did he purchase it. Abner Lemonzeo earned the loyalty of those around them because he trusted them enough to include them. He valued their opinions. He treated them like family.

“Anything you need, Mr. Lemonzeo,” Jack said.

“I need you to have a look around the Tick Tock,” Mr. Lemonzeo said. “Tonight. Tell me who comes and goes. Watch for holes in their security. From what I’m told, this should be an easy enough job, but I’d like your take on it, Jack.”

“Of course, Mr. Lemonzeo.”

The Tick Tock was a pawn shop on the south side of Desoto, just off Highway Ten. More than just a place for desperate people to hock their valuables for ten percent of what they were worth, Rolf Klein used it as a front for a book maker’s. If there was a wager to be made, it was done at the Tick Tock. Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured in and out of the pawn shop every day. More so on fight nights.

Jack parked the car, an old Chevy Nova, in the lot of the Super Mart, directly across the street from the Tick Tock. No one would question why the car was there, the Super Mart was, after all, open twenty four hours.

It seemed silly for Klein to have an illegal gambling den located just across the street from a twenty four hour supermarket, but the pawn shop had been there first. Of course, back then, when the Super Mart had gone up, the Tick Tock was just a pawn shop. There was nothing shady going on other than the occasional drug deal out back.

That was twenty years ago.

Back then there wasn’t much out here. Just the gas station, a hamburger joint, and the Tick Tock, all side by side facing west. But as they were just off the highway, it was an area ripe for development. After they put in the Super Mart, the area practically blew up, developers building shot after shop, moving west as their forefathers once did.

Three years after the Super Mart had been built, Mr. Lemonzeo found himself the new owner of the Tick Tock. Jack couldn’t recall how the Boss had acquired the shop, but it wasn’t long before Mr. Lemonzeo turned it into a money maker.

Klein had taken over the operation of the Tick Tock the same day the Boss had been sentenced.

Jack watched as nothing appeared to be going on across the street. At this time of night, the Tick Tock had its closed sign up, and the lights were out. But Jack knew that all the money was made in the basement. It was the back door he should be watching.

So Jack left the Nova and headed out on foot.

Jack wasn’t stupid. He knew that he didn’t look like someone who had more than a few brain cells kicking around inside his head, and he often used this impression to his advantage, but he was smarter than your average bear.

He knew enough, for example, not to go straight from the Nova and cross the street to the Tick Tock parking lot. If anyone was watching, a move like that would stick out like a sore thumb.

Instead, he moved off in the opposite direction and entered the Super Mart.

Jack got a cart and even walked around the store for twenty minutes, placing various items into it. Eventually, though, he left the cart in back, outside the doors to the restrooms. He did not, however, go into the restroom. He used the swinging doors to the left that were marked for employee’s only. These entered into the spacious store room where they kept everything that didn’t fit on the shelves.

Moving with purpose, because Jack knew most people wouldn’t ask why you were somewhere you shouldn’t be if you acted as if you were supposed to be there, he made a beeline for the docking area. There he left the store and moved off to the north and the Tiny Bubbles liquor store that shared the lot with the Super Mart.

In the end, Jack made a large circle from the Super Mart, past Tiny Bubbles, and then past the pet store before crossing the street. He then moved, again, with purpose, behind the hamburger joint, the one with the arches. From there be moved on to the gas station located next to the pawn shop, where he crouched behind a dumpster. Though the odor was more than a little foul, his vantage point gave him a spectacular view of the back entrance to the Tick Tock.

A police car was parked behind the pawn shop, but from a distance, Jack couldn’t tell if anyone was inside. Before he could curse himself for not bringing a pair of binoculars, a small, red, sports car pulled in and stopped next to the police car.

The driver’s side door of the police car opened and an officer stepped out. He was short with a thick mustache. He stepped to the window of the sports car. The window lowered, but it was too dark to see who was inside. The officer, as short as he was, still had to bend to speak to the driver. They were too far for Jack to hear what they were saying.

He took a chance and moved closer.

The area behind the burger joint, gas station, and pawn shop was all grass, scrub, and a few trees. The cover wasn’t great, but Jack had to take what he could get if he wanted to know what was going on. It was possible the cops were in Klein’s pocket. More than possible. If that was the case, then they would have more to deal with then a couple of guys with shotguns if they were going to take down the Tick Tock.

Jack crawled through the grass, moving as close as he could to the back lot of the pawn shop. He was able to get behind a small row of bushes that bordered part of the lot without being seen. He didn’t have much of a view, he didn’t have the ability to see through shrubbery, but he could make out the voices coming from the lot.

“…just make sure you get it done.” A woman’s voice. Possibly from the sports car.

“You don’t have to worry about me,” came the reply. Male. The cop. “I know my part.”

“And make sure your friends stay on the north side of town,” she said. “He’s coming at us here, the night of the fight. It’s probably going to be loud.”

“Yeah, I heard you the first time,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”

After that was the sound of the sports car driving away, then a car door opening, closing, and the police car pulling away.

Were they talking about Mr. Lemonzeo? If so, then someone is telling tales out of class. Jack wasn’t happy about that.

He took a chance and rose enough so that he could over the tops of the shrubs. The back lot was empty. If there was anything going on in the basement of the Tick Tock, you wouldn’t know it from out here. Maybe he should go on in? He knew the password after all. Just knock on the back door, give the word, and he’d be in.

No one knew he was back with Lemonzeo. He didn’t think so anyway.
He crouched there for another minute. Nothing happened. He needed to get inside.

His mind made up, he rose.

He only made it three steps before the creature was on him. It was all fur, claws, and teeth.

Jack fought back with all that he could muster, but it wasn’t enough. Whatever had him was strong, unmovable.

It tore and bit into him with such fury that Jack couldn’t feel what was happening to him. All he could do was think about what he’d done wrong.

Had he been spotted? Had he done something to give himself away?

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the creature was gone. Not that it mattered. As Jack lay there in the dirt, the life draining from him, he had only one thought. One regret in his forty-three years of life. In the end, he’d failed Mr. Lemonzeo. He didn’t think he could live with the guilt.

Fortunately for Jack, the rest of his life lasted only moments.






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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

#041: THE BULL GOD




MAGGIE WAS ABOUT TO lose it.

I didn’t blame her. I was about to lose it too.

But then whatever magic Cleon had used to force me to kneel had let go. I jumped to my feet.

“Get behind me,” I told Maggie.

I fired two quick shots, one from each gun, and the slugs found their target, center mass on the big bull. But a minotaur’s skin is thick like a Kevlar vest and the bullets did no real harm. I’d known this as I fired. But sometimes the crashing sound of gunfire and the impact of the shots can distract something as bulletproof as a minotaur long enough for me to enact the next piece of my brilliant plan.

So, the moment after I’d squeezed the triggers I turned to Maggie. I pointed to where I’d come into the arena.

“Run!” I shouted.

And so we ran, followed by a raucous chorus of boos from the stands.

It always feels wrong to me to run from a fight. But priority one here was to get Maggie home with all her limbs. Besides, a minotaur is not something I like to tussle with unless I have no other option. The bullet proof skin is one reason. The other factor is that they are immensely strong, which Mike showed to be true when the massive stone altar dropped out of the sky in front of us.

The stands erupted in cheers and I toyed with the idea of emptying both guns into them. But only for just the tiniest of moments.

Maggie and I reached the exit to find it barred. Literally. A gate made from thick, vertical iron bars had evidently shut behind me when I’d entered earlier. Maggie and I were now trapped in the arena with a minotaur, a dark wizard, and a thousand or so screaming monks with their blood lust up.

Not one of my better days.

We turned to find Mike bearing down on us like a charging bull. Which, of course, he was.

I’ve always made it a rule in my life to avoid coming into contact with a minotaur unless people were in danger. Luckily, there ain’t that many left alive. I know of one in California, I’ve been told that a set of twins live in South Dakota, there are rumors of a family of them in Main, and of course there’s that village in Greece. And then locally, there’s Mike.

I’ve never had any trouble before from Mike. He’d been living under Kansas City for as long as I can remember—which is a good long time—and as far as I know he’s never so much as hurt anyone. Mike’s always been one of those monsters that liked to be left alone. In fact, I don’t even like to think of Mike as a monster. I mean, technically, that’s what he is, but the few times I’ve dealt with him in the past he has shown more compassion and selflessness than most humans I know.

So what was he doing here?

I thought maybe I should ask him.

“Mike!” I shouted. “Talk to me. This ain’t like you.”

Mike, however, didn’t feel like talking. He kept coming at me. I stepped to the side at the last moment, and the big bull slammed headlong into the gate that had Maggie and I trapped.

As a testament to the builder, the gate didn’t fall. Which was too bad, I was kinda hoping Mike would inadvertently set us free. Instead, his horns got caught among the bars and for the moment Maggie and I didn’t have certain death crashing down on us.

“What do we do?” Maggie asked.

Mike bellowed as he thrashed and pulled.

“Well,” I said. “I think reasoning with the beast is out of the question.”

“You called it Mike,” Maggie said as we backed away. The monks in the stands called out their displeasure at the lull. “Do you know that thing?”

“Mike is a minotaur,” I said.

“I kinda worked that one out for myself.”

“Okay,” I said. “Anyway, he’s usually kept to himself. He’s worked hard over the centuries to avoid human contact. In fact, the Mike I know would find the idea of being worshiped ridiculous and frankly, I think he’d be more than a little aggravated.”

“Then why—”

Whatever she’d meant to say, she didn’t finish as Mike freed himself from the iron gate. He turned to us and I noticed that his eyes were dull, like those of a cow grazing in a field.

Make whatever jokes you want, but the few times I’ve crossed paths with Mike, his eyes had looked anything but dull. These were the eyes of an automaton, not an intelligent creature like Mike.

“This ain’t you, Mike,” I said again as the big bull took a step toward us.

But Mike only snorted, lowered his head, and charged once more.

Maggie and I jumped out of the way and Mike sailed past us.

The monks were not happy. So far their hopes of an exciting battle had been dashed by nothing more than a few missed passes by an angry bull.

“Follow me,” I called and ran to the stands.

The wall between the arena floor and the crowd was only about three feet high, and as Maggie and I arrived I helped her up onto the top of it. But it’s as far and she was going to go.

“There’s something here,” she said, standing on the wall and pounding on nothing. It won’t let me through!”

A magical barrier.

Then Mike was there. I pushed Maggie out of the way as the bull took hold of me, lifted me up over his head, and then tossed me like a doll into the middle of the arena.

I hit the ground in a heap, landing on my right shoulder. I felt it pop out its socket and I screamed through the pain.

Mike threw his head back and bellowed.

The crowd cheered their approval.

Over it all I could hear the sound of laughing.

I looked up into the stands and had no trouble locating the source. Sitting in his own private box, like the emperor himself, was Cleon, his head tattoos glowing like a black light poster in a stoner’s basement.

Maggie ran to me and knelt at my side as Mike continued to bellow.

“Kill him!” Someone called from the stands.

Others took up the cry and soon the crowd was chanting.

“KILL HIM! KILL HIM! KILL HIM!”

Mike turned and took a step toward us, then stopped. He shook his head as if trying to clear it of cobwebs and for a moment, the dullness left his eyes.

“What—” Mike said before the blank expression returned and he took another step toward us. His movements suddenly jerky and forced.

“He’s controlling him,” Maggie said.

“What?” I said.

“Cleon. Look at his tattoos.”

Mike took another step toward us, it was almost robotic. Beyond that, I could see that the glow from Cleon’s tattoos had grown more intense, pulsating with each step Mike took. Maggie was right. Furthermore, I could see the concentration break out on Cleon’s face along with beads of sweat.

Mike was fighting it.

“Okay, listen,” I said to her. “I have something here that can help us, but we need to get through that barrier first.”

I pulled a set of brass knuckles from my pocket.

“Brass knuckles?” She said.

“I don’t have time to explain but they’re mag—”

Suddenly Mike was there, lunging for me. I rolled out of the way, grunting as my dislocated shoulder got underneath me, and I dropped the brass knuckles. I tried to grab for them, but Mike was there first. He took hold of me, lifting me from the ground and squeezing me to his chest like greeting a long, lost love.

The air was forced out of my lungs as Mike squeezed, and I panicked. I kicked and flailed, fighting against the thick steel cables that were Mike’s arms, but it was no use. I couldn’t get free.

I looked up into Mike’s face and saw nothing, like a cow chewing its cud.

“Mike,” I said with the little breath I had left, and then it all slipped away.

Mike, the arena, the screaming monks, Cleon’s smiling face of triumph, and the tears falling from Maggie’s eyes, it all faded as I slipped into the Black.

The Void.

Nothingness.






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Thursday, April 19, 2018

#040: THE ARENA





AFTER I LEFT THE dog—maybe I’ll call her Trinity—the corridor I’d been following began to slope downward in a gradual way. I hadn’t noticed it at first. I’d run out of chemical lights and had been trying to map the path in my mind, something I have to admit that I was failing at. But eventually the slope became sharper and it was more difficult at that point not to notice.

The corridor then opened up into a dark room, so dark that I couldn’t tell the size. I could see, however, about fifty yards in, surrounded by a halo of light, what appeared to be a slab of stone with someone lying atop it.

Everything surrounding that one circle of light was complete blackness. I pulled my flashlight from the backpack and switched it on. The beam of light was unable to penetrate the darkness. That made me more than a little uneasy about stepping into the room. But the spell was pulling me forward, so with both pistols in hand I took a deep breath, and plunged in.

Nothing attacked me. No goblins, ogres, or giant slugs. Nary a cyclops to be seen. Just the circle of light ahead. As I drew closer I could see that the figure on the stone slab wasn’t merely laying atop it. They were tied to it.

I stepped closer and found that it was Maggie Keaton, bound spread eagle atop a stone altar that had been stained dark with the blood of countless sacrifices. They’d left her clothes on her, but the rips and bloodstains told me that she’d not made it easy for them. Good for her.

I holstered the pistols and pulled a switchblade from a coat pocket. I popped the blade and sawed at the ropes. There were four of them. One for each appendage. They went from ankle and wrist to four thick rings that had been set in the stone around the four corners of the altar. The rings were dark and old. These guys had been at this for a while.

Maggie woke as I worked. Her eyes widened with panic and she tried to pull back, away from me. She’d been tormented, possibly tortured. I may have to burn this place to the ground.

“Don’t worry, Maggie,” I said as she watched me work, her eyes showing the terror she’d been made to endure. “The name’s Norman Oklahoma. Anthony sent me to fetch you; he was getting mighty worried about your wellbeing.”

“Anthony?” she said. “They told me he was dead. That they k—” Her voice broke. “They told me that they had killed him.”

“He ain’t dead,” I said as the rope on her right wrist broke free. “But he may well wish he was if we can’t get you home to him in one piece.”

She started to cry.

“Is he really alive?” She said between sobs. “Promise me he’s really alive.”

“He’s alive,” I said. “I promise.”

She seemed to gain a bit of strength from hearing that.

“You know who it was that took you? What they want?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Nothing.”

Then she paused and collected herself. There was a strength in this girl that I respected at once. As long as I did my job, she’d get out of this just fine.

Her voice was steadier as she continued.

“Most of them don’t talk. Or at least not to me. Only one talked to me, I think he’s in charge. He kept his hood down so I couldn’t see his face. He’s the one who told me that Anthony was dead.”

“Well, he ain’t,” I said. “So don’t go thinking on it.”

The rope on her left wrist snapped free and I went to work on her left ankle.

“There anyone else?” I asked.

“Anyone else?”

“They take anyone else?” I said. “You see anyone other than you that they might’ve taken?”

“No,” she said. “I was alone.”

Harold had said that the Brotherhood would take their sacrifices one at a time, one a night, but it didn’t hurt to make sure.

“So,” I said, as casually as I could. “I’m told you work at the Happy Hamburger. They sure do make some good burgers.”

“I guess,” she said.

“You guess?”

“You tend to get sick of them after a while. You know, when you’re around them all the time.”

“You like working there?” I asked. I wanted to keep her mind focused, keep her head about her.

“It’s a job,” she said.

The rope on her left ankle broke and I went around the altar to work on the last. She was, by this time, sitting up and looking around.

“Where are we?” She asked.

“Somewhere we don’t want to be,” I said, setting to work on her last rope. “Beyond that, I’m not really sure.”

“It’s dark,” she said.

“It is at that.” Then I tried to change the subject. “If the Happy Hamburger is just a job, then what else does Maggie Keaton want to do?”

“I’m in school,” she said.

“Oh yeah?” I said as the final rope broke free. “School, huh? What are you studying?”

“Law,” she said, sliding off the altar. “I’m studying Law.”

She was a bit unsteady on her feet.

“You must be one of them big brains then,” I said.

She smiled and looked me over for the first time.

“Are you real?” she asked.

“I’m very real, girl,” I said. “And I’ll have you out of here in no time.”

“Why do you dress like that?”

I sighed. “I happen to like the way I dress,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” A voice said from behind. “You are the very peak of fashion, Norman Oklahoma.”

I spun, both pistols in hand. I’d been able to clear leather and thumb back both hammers before the speaker had finished their sentence.

He eased out from the dark like stepping out from under a waterfall. He wore a set of long sleeved robes, hooded and blood red that were belted at the waist by a length of rope. Two other men stood to either side of him; both dressed the same, only in brown.

I put myself between Maggie and the three monks.

“You must be the Brotherhood,” I said. “It just the three of you?” I asked, gesturing at the three men with one of my pistols. “I gotta say son, your religion ain’t got the reach like it used to.”

“The Brotherhood is doing just fine,” the man said, smiling. “And tonight will prove that. You will be a part of that, Norman. May I call you Norman?”

I popped off a quick shot. It should have taken him in the forehead. Instead the slug slammed into some sort of invisible wall about an inch from the man and then turned into powder.

“Come now, Norman,” the man said. “Is that the way for a guest to act. After all the trouble I went to invite you here.”

“Invite?” I said, replacing my spent shell. “You wanted me here?”

Maggie stood behind me, a hand on my shoulder. I could feel her trembling.

“Of course, Norman,” the man said. “Why, you are the star of the show.”

“That’s funny,” I said. “On my end, it feels like you’ve been doing everything you can to keep me away. I mean, I can assume you’re the fella who set those goblins on me and my friends.”

“Keep you away? Why, Norman. I’ve been doing everything but. I’ve studied you, see. I know what makes you tick. What motivates you. Yes, that was me in the smoke in your friend’s pathetic excuse for a laboratory. See, I knew that the more obstacles I put in your way, the more it would drive you forward.”

“You accomplished that just by taking the girl, idiot. You put other lives in danger trying to get me to a place I was already going. All you’ve managed to do with all this is give me more of a reason to end your life.”

I tried to pop off another shot, but like before, the bullet dissolved into powder and blew away.

The man laughed. A sickly green glow oozed out from under his hood. Suddenly I found my arms moving on their own. Before I could stop them, they had holstered both pistols. My arms then hung at my sides and try as I might, I couldn’t move them. In fact, I couldn’t move my legs either. I was stuck.

“It matters not how you arrived, Norman, or why. All that matters is that you are here.”

He threw his hands up and like a clap of thunder the lights came on and a cacophony of sound slammed into me. We stood in the center of an ancient, indoor arena. The stands were filled to capacity with thousands of cheering monks. I almost expected to see chariots, gladiators, and Christians being fed to lions.

“Welcome, Brothers of Minos!” The man pulled his hood back to reveal a bald head covered in glowing rune tattoos. His voice echoed out as if from a state of the art P.A. system.

“I, Cleon, High Priest of the Brotherhood and Voice of the Bull God come to you with tidings of joy as we begin this time of ritual!”

The crowd quieted.

“We come together tonight to ask Mighty Asterion for his blessings upon the coming year. To honor him with sacrifice so that he may bestow upon us the power to topple our enemies.”

“THE BROTHERHOOD OR NONE,” the crowd said in one voice.

“Oh boy,” I said.

“What’s happening?” Maggie asked. She’d moved to stand beside me.

“Nothing but a great big bunch of crazy,” I said.

“Only I, the High Priest, knows the heart of the Bull God. Asterion is no longer satisfied with mere sacrifice. Asterion has too long hidden away from the world of men. He longs for the time of war. He yearns for the days of battle and blood.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. I had a bad feeling that I knew where this was heading.

“Look,” I said to Maggie. “I think things are about to get really bad really quick. When they come for you, resist. Fight them as much as you can. They aren’t going to hurt you, not until the proper time anyway.”

“What about you?” Maggie said. “What’s going to happen?”

“The Great Asterion yearns for the call of battle, to wash in the blood of his enemies,” Cleon called out. “And for that I bring you his opponent, Norman Oklahoma!”

The crowd booed. It didn’t make me feel very well.

“If Norman Oklahoma can defeat the Might Asterion,” Cleon paused while the monks laughed. “Yes, yes,” he said, laughing as well. “As ridiculous as it sounds, if Norman Oklahoma can best Mighty Asterion, he is free to leave unharmed with the sacrifice.”

More boos.

“Norman Oklahoma,” Cleon said, turning to me. “You are being shown a great honor. Kneel before the Bull God!”

I fell to me knees. I didn’t want to, but I was no longer in control. The roar of the crowed pounded at my ears as a figure emerged from an archway under the stands.

It was seven feet tall, at least, with wide, broad shoulders. It was all muscle too, like a comic book exaggeration of a body builder. It dressed in simple sandals that laced up to the knees, a leather kilt studded with metal plates, and a belt that crisscrossed its massive chest. The thing’s skin was a dark red like leather.

But what made it truly stand out from the crowd was what was perched atop its shoulders. The creature had the body of a man, but the head of a bull.

“What is that?” Maggie asked.

“That,” I told her. “Is Mike.”






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Monday, April 16, 2018

#039: INTO THE LABYRINTH




THE ROOM BEYOND WAS not a room at all. Instead it was a brightly lit corridor about fifty yards long.

The walls of the corridor where white. The same with the floor and ceiling. The only non-white object in the corridor was the red door at the other end.

Apart from the broken door that lay on the ground before me, the corridor stood empty.

That was when I’d noticed that the pull from the tracking spell had stopped pulling. That got me moving.

If the tracking spell had stopped working, well... It could mean a number of things. The most likely being that Maggie was...

I didn’t want to think about it.

I ran the fifty yards and threw open the red door without thought for what might be waiting beyond. The door opened toward me and through the opening I could see a thick haze. It was as if a wall of smoke stood in the opening. But it wasn’t quite smoke. It was... well, an obscurity. That’s the only way I could describe it.

A wall of obscurity.

I poked at the wall with the barrel of a pistol. It wasn’t solid. The barrel slid through the obscurity with no effort. When I pulled the gun out, there was nothing on the barrel to make me think that the obscurity was harmful... At least not to inanimate objects. It could eat through flesh like bleach through a red shirt for all I know.

But again, I didn’t have a choice.

Actually, that’s not true. I could turn around and go home. Maybe grill a burger. Binge-watch Friends on Netflix. But that wasn’t me. The burger and Friends was me, but I couldn’t just walk away from someone who needed my help

So I stepped through the obscurity.

It was like stepping through an icy waterfall that wasn’t actually wet.

The other side was another corridor. But this one was stone with fluttering torches set in the wall at regular intervals. The tracking spell kicked back in as well, pulling me forward.

The stone hallway ended about thirty yards later with an option to go right or left. The tracking spell pulled left. So I went left. Before I did, however, I pulled one of the chemical lights from the backpack, gave it a crack and a shake to activate it, then dropped it there on the floor. I didn’t know what kind of path I might take in wherever this place was, figured I might want something to help me get back out if necessary.

The left path took a sharp right a dozen steps later, then another right, three lefts, two rights, and then I found myself facing three possible options: Left, right, or keep moving forward.

I was in some sort of dern maze. It was like the goblin warren all over again, except this was man made.

I tried not to get frustrated. I had the spell to guide me, so I put my trust in it and made each decision based solely on where the spell pulled me, dropping more chemical lights as I went.

Fifteen minutes later, the spell pulled me into a room about half the size of a school gymnasium. Like the halls, the room was stone and lit with torches.

Unlike the halls, the room was occupied.

In the center of the room sat a cyclops in a large, stone chair. It rose as I entered, holding a spiked club. The creature was about twice my size and it smiled down at me as it licked it lips in anticipation.

“It’s about time,” it said. “I didn’t think you were going to come.”

“Parking was a real hassle. You should think about investing in a valet service, or maybe even a shuttle,” I said.

“You have a mouth on you,” the cyclops showed its teeth. “It’s been a while since I’ve have had a meal talk back to me. Why, I think I’m going to—”

The shot from the pistol echoed through the room like one of them super bouncy rubber balls.

The great thing about a cyclops is the eye. It provides the perfect target.

The monster dropped where it stood and I moved on, replacing the spent cartridge in the Peacemaker as I did.

With the tracking spell as my guide, I moved through the maze with speed and efficiency. The cyclops wasn’t the only monster I’d encountered on my journey.

Ten minutes after the cyclops, I entered a room full of goblins. Too many to shoot down before they could overwhelm me. I dug out one of the magical items I’d collected over the years. It was a small marble carving in the shape of an antique salt mill. I called it the Edith.

I pointed the Edith at the goblins and said the word “Salis.” Before I could so much as blink, each and every one of the short, green creatures had been turned into salt. I pocketed the carving and moved through to the other end and out of the room, leaving the salt goblins behind.

The Edith was probably one of the most powerful magical objects I owned. Unfortunately it can only be used once every five years, so I try not to pull it out but for a special occasion. A room full of goblins fit the bill nicely in my opinion.

After the goblins there was the giant slug. Not to be confused with a colossal slug.

A giant slug is just that, a slug the size of an elephant. The giant slug is a carnivore. It’s slow, sure, which meant most average folk could outrun one, but they didn’t depend on speed all that much. They’re trap hunters, laying down a pool of slime for any unwary creature to walk into. The slime contained a paralyzing agent. Not a big deal if you were a human being that wore shoes and such, but for anything smaller than a blue whale, skin contact turned it still in seconds flat. At the point the slug just crawled along and ate you up.

Beyond it’s immense size and paralytic slime, the giant slug was still just a slug. Which was ironic because the Edith sure would have come in handy there. I had nothing on me that could stop a giant slug, so I ran back the way I’d come. But not too quickly, like I said, giant slugs aren’t known for their speed, and I wanted to make sure this one followed me.

And it did just that, right into the room of salt goblins. The slug didn’t last long after that.

After a few more twists and turns I entered a room occupied by a three headed dog. He was a big fella too. Standing on all four legs it could look me in the eye.

The dog looked a bit like one of them pit bulls, all sinew and muscle, and the Brotherhood had him chained to the wall. Had it not been chained up, I could only assume that the dog would have been roaming the maze, looking for something to maul. I based this on the way it had reacted when I’d eased into to the room. It charged me as soon as it sensed my presence. The chain kept the three heads from chewing me to pieces, so I had to give thanks to that.

But I had to get by the dog to get to the exit on the other side of the room.

Luckily, I have a way with dogs. They love me. It’s just a thing I have. Of course, the hunk of cold roast beef that Grace had sent with me didn’t hurt.

I reached into the backpack and pulled out the meat, unwrapping it and then showing it to the dog. All three heads stopped barking and started sniffing. Three tongues lolled out of three slavering mouths and the dog sat back on her haunches. She even whined a bit before I tore the beef into three pieces and tossed them onto the floor. The three heads gobbled them up in no time.

Soon the dog was looking at me, three sets of eyes full of anticipation. Her tail wagged. I held out my right hand, palm up and let her sniff me. The sniffing was followed by licking. The wagging tail could have taken out the walls of Jericho.

I pulled the sandwiches from the satchel, four in all, and opened them up to find bologna and cheese on each. I kept the bread, the dog got the rest.

It wasn’t long before the dog was on her back and I was scratching her expansive belly. I had to use both hands. But in the end, I had to go.

“I have to leave you here, girl,” I said as I scratched away. “I’d like to take you with me, but I don’t know what I’m gonna to find when I reach the end of this maze. You look like you can take care of yourself, but I’d feel better knowing you were back here, safe and sound.”

I gave her one last scratch and rose. The dog rose with me, tail wagging.

“I’ll come let you lose on my way back, I promise,” I said.

The dog let out a whine from all three throats.

“Now stop that,” I said. “I’ll be back, I promise.”

Three slobbering tongues licked my face. I laughed.

“Heck, I ain’t owned a dog in a great long time. Maybe I’ll bring you home with me.” The tail, if it was even possible, waged even more frenetically. “Of course, you stick out quite a bit; we’ll have to see to that.”

Then all three heads barked and the dog changed right in front of me. The three heads became one and it shrank down until it was the size of a normal pit. The chain still held it to the wall somehow, so the change was more illusion than anything, but...

“That would certainly work,” I said, and laughed again. “You hold tight, I’ll be back soon. I promise.”

The dog, shifting back to its three headed form, sat to show me that it could wait patiently. I gave each head one last pet, then left, heading back into the labyrinth.






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Thursday, April 12, 2018

#038: THE SOUND OF SILENCE


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HAVE YOU EVER FELT like you were being watched?

It’s a rather unique feeling and somewhat hard to describe. In fact, I don’t think that the feeling is the same for everyone. It’s just something you know, like deep down in your gullet, when it’s happening.

As I crept through the open farmland between where I’d parked my Scout and where the abandoned factory sat, the sense of being watched crawled over me like a hill of army ants. It was so intrusive that partway across I stopped and gave the surrounding area a good scan. But, as the light was quickly draining from the day, I couldn’t see squat. There could have been someone lounging in the dirt four feet from me and I probably wouldn’t have seen them.

But that didn’t stop me from trying.

I stood as still as I could, moving only my eyes, locking on various shapes in the field beyond me. I’d stare at a shape until my eyes watered, trying to catch movement, but coming up empty. Nothing stirred. Not for twenty minutes. Yet, I still felt eyes on me.

I’ve never liked that feeling, especially when I can’t see who, or what, has eyes on me. Makes me twitchy. I wanted to pull both my pistols and fire them off in every direction till I hit something.

But I didn’t.

Instead I tried my best to ignore the feeling and moved on.

When it comes to approaching what is most likely the secret lair of a group of psychotic fanatics, there are three schools of thought on how best to get inside without getting caught, captured, and then killed.

The first is the stealth approach. Use the cover of night to sneak up, take out any sentries as silently as possible, then use a lock pick or stolen key to get yourself inside.

The second option is to use trickery. Pose as a deliver person, meter reader, basically someone who belongs. Then, using said disguise and a cocksure attitude, talk your way inside. Actually, if you do it right, you won’t even need to talk.

I do things a little differently. I’m not all that sneaky, and I lie about as well as a cat in a canary costume trying to talk its way into a bird sanctuary.

I prefer to walk right up to the front door and force my way in — shooting, if necessary.

I didn’t want to do that here, however. I had to think about Maggie. If I walked up and just started shooting, the Brotherhood might jump the gun and kill her before midnight.

So I tried the stealth route.

Like I said, I wasn’t very good at it. Never have been. I can track a single squirrel across two hundred miles of forest; I just can’t do it quietly.

My feet found every stick, branch, and clump of dry grass as I made my way cautiously through the empty field. Basically, anything that made a noise, I stepped on it. I even managed to kick a sleeping cat that made the field its bed for the night. It hissed and yowled as it ran into the night.

Eventually I made it to the building. My plan of using stealth failed as I stepped nearer and walked into some type of motion sensor, causing all of the exterior lights to power up, bathing everything around the building in what was nearly daylight. I ignored the set back, but approached with a little more caution.

Then I hit my second roadblock. I couldn’t immediately find a way into the building. The south side was nothing but brick. The west side of the building was paved and wide. This was where the trucks would arrive and back into a docking area to unload. The docking area was there, but all of the doors had been removed and the opened spaces filled in with more brick.

I moved around to the front of the building, the north side, and finally found a door. Two doors, actually. They were glass and were mounted side to side. This would be the front entrance for visitors to the facility. I couldn’t see inside. Though the doors were glass, someone had covered them in black paint.

Then I noticed the camera. It was mounted just above the two doors. There was nothing on it that indicated if it was functional, most security cameras don’t come with the convenient red light on the front, but I had to assume that I was being watched.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned.

But, I had Maggie to think of. The tracking spell was pulling me toward those glass doors. I had no choice.

I tested the door. It was unlocked.

I backed away. I didn’t like this at all. It had just occurred to me that there should be a bit more security here than motion activated lights and a solitary camera. Where were the guards?

Something screwy was going on and frankly, I smelled a trap. I was being guided here by the tracking spell, which should be taking me right to Maggie, but only if the hair that Anthony grabbed hold of had been her hair.

But still, I had to chance it. Besides, the best way out of a trap sometimes is to spring it.

I cleared leather on the left Peacemaker, and using my right hand, eased one of the doors open. I slid inside, the barrel of the pistol leading the way.

I found myself in a well-lit lobby with clean, new furnishings and freshly waxed wood floors. The door closed behind me, its closing arm quiet and smooth as it pulled the door shut. I heard a mechanical click as the door came to a stop. Curious, I reached out and pulled at the handle.

Locked.

Figures.

I was now trapped inside the building. That is unless I wanted to smash through the glass of the door, which I wasn’t above doing, but I wasn’t interested in getting out. Not yet anyway. Not without Maggie.

It was about this time that it dawned on me that I’d made a mistake. And a pretty big one to boot. In my hurry to find Maggie, I never updated Pat on my progress. She had no idea I was out here, locked inside an abandoned factory building.

I don’t carry a phone. Never have. I find them annoying and intrusive. I have a CB radio in the Scout, I could have gotten through to Pat with that, but again, in my haste it had slipped my mind. As I stood there facing those locked, glass doors, I started to re-think my phone prejudices. But then, whatever I decided wouldn’t do my any good now so I pushed it out of my mind.

I moved quickly around the room, taking everything in.

A desk stood just a half a dozen feet from the door in the center of the room and against the back wall. No one behind, or under it.

To the left of the desk was a couch and four chairs arranged around a coffee table, atop which sat a fan of magazines. They were all current.

There was a small table to the left of the couch and chairs. It held a coffee maker, four white mugs, sugar, sugar substitute, creamers of various flavors, and a few plastic spoons for stirring. The carafe was full and the power light glowed red. I touched the carafe and found the glass hot. The coffee was fresh. It smelled wonderful.

To the right of the desk was an unmarked wooden door with no window. The tracking spell pulled me toward it.

I left the door and sat behind the desk, which had nothing on it. No computer, no stapler, no little cup full of pens and pencils, and no phone. I checked the desk drawers and found each of them but one empty. The beep bottom drawer on the right contained one three by five index card. On it, written in thick black magic marker, was one word:

BEGIN

I pocketed the card and stood. I moved to stand about four feet away, but facing, the plain wooden door. From there I stood, waiting and listening.

I could hear nothing but the occasional car passing by outside on the highway. But then, in the silence between each vehicle I began to pick up a hum from somewhere beyond where I stood. I could feel it beneath my feet.

The tracking spell gave me a sharp tug. I wanted to give in and get moving, but I didn’t. I continued to listen. If there was anyone waiting for me beyond the door, then I was gonna see if I could wait them out. If they were there, they knew I was here.

Eventually they might grow tired of waiting for me to stumble on to them. They may start wondering what I’ve been doing out here for all this time. They might think that maybe I left, or fell asleep, or had a heart attack, or went crazy and ate my own feet. The possibilities were endless. Regardless, if I could wait them out, they might come looking for me.

If that happens, if that door opens, I start shooting.

That’s when I heard the scream. A woman’s scream. It had come from the other side of the door.

I rushed forward and kicked the door so hard that it flew off of its hinges and slammed violently somewhere inside the room beyond.






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Monday, April 9, 2018

#037: THE TASTE OF FEET




OZ’S TRACKING POTION WAS bubbling away in a small cauldron as I joined the wizard in his basement lab.

The basement looked as it had when Diana and I had been by earlier. You’d never have known that a passel of ornery goblins had been set upon the place, only to be burned into ash just hours ago.

Oz sat bent over a cutting board, slicing up some sort of fruit.

“How’s the brew coming along?” I asked. Steam rose from the small cauldron. It smelled of feet, which didn’t bode well for the taste.

“Just getting some oranges ready to add to the potion for flavor,” he said.

“Don’t bother,” I said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned kicking around this planet for the past hundred and fifty odd years is that magic potions are like medicine. It doesn’t matter how much fruit flavor you add, it’s still gonna taste like death.”

Oz looked from the orange slices to me, then back again.

“Well,” he said, sighing. “I suppose I am a bit peckish.”

He ate the orange slices.

“How’s this potion going to work?” I asked.

“Quite simple actually,” Oz said. He walked over to the boiling cauldron and stirred the concoction with a long, wooden spoon. “Once I add the lock of Maggie’s hair you gave me, which is the final step, the potion will lead you straight to her.”

“Right,” I said. “I get that. But how?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, how? Like, am I gonna see a glowing yellow line that I follow to Maggie, or an arrow, or will a spirit animal guide the way? What can I expect?”

“Honestly,” Oz said, stroking his long beard. “I have no idea. I’ve never brewed this particular potion before.”

“Oh, well,” I said. “That’s comforting.”

“Sorry,” Oz just shrugged his shoulders. “Looks like it’s ready for the hair.”

“Not a phrase I like to hear before drinking something that smells like feet,” I said.

Oz tossed the lock of hair into the cauldron and the potion let out a little hiss, like the hair had angered it in some way. A thin column of blue smoke snaked from the cauldron and the stench magnified beyond feet and moved into the realm of hooves.

“It’s ready,” Oz said. He dipped a wooden ladle into the potion and filled a small glass with it.

The potion was brown. Then green. Then brown again. Then pink for a moment. Then back to brown.

“This will help me find Maggie?” I asked, taking the glass.

“That’s the idea,” Oz said. “Of course, that all depends on the hair.”

“What do you mean?” I gave the potion a sniff and immediately started to choke and cough.

Oz gave me a few slaps on the back, laughing. I never wanted to shoot a friend more than anything in my entire life.

“We’re going on the assumption that the hair you brought me belonged to the young lady you’re looking for,” Oz explained once the coughing fit had ended. “Do you know for a fact that it belonged to Maggie Keaton?”

“No,” I said. “But it was in her boyfriend’s hand. He’d been holding on to it like a life preserver. Who else’s could it be?”

“No, no, you’re correct. The logical assumption would be that the hair belonged to her. But if it didn’t . . .” He spread his hands.

“Okay, well,” I said. “Ain’t no reason to put this off any longer.”

I downed the potion in two quick gulps, followed quickly by a fight with my stomach not to bring it back up. I won, this time, and it wasn’t long before a tingle ran through me.

“Well?” Oz said.

“Just a minute. Something’s happening.”

The tingle traveled through my body. It began in my stomach, then set out for new territory. It crackled along my legs and down to my toes as it also worked its way up my torso to my arms, hands, and fingers. Then the tingling stopped and for a moment, I went numb in every corner. That was when I felt the pull.

“Well?” Oz said again, showing his impatience.

“I’m feeling a pull,” I said.

“A pull?”

“Yeah, like something’s pulling at me.”

“Pulling you where?”

“The south,” I said, pointing in that very direction.

“Then south is where you should go,” Oz said. “That’s where you will find young Maggie.”

“Thanks, Oz,” I said, offering him my hand. “Thanks for all your help.”

“You just go get that girl home safely,” Oz said, shaking my hand. “You do that and that’ll be all the thanks I’ll need.”

“Haven’t you gone yet?” Grace walked in with a large, brown, paper grocery bag in her hand.

“I was just leaving,” I said.

“Here,” she said, holding out the bag. “Thought I’d send some food along with you.”

“Thanks, Grace,” I said, taking the bag. “But I ain’t all that hungry.”

“The food is for the girl, numb-skull,” she said. “They could be starving her for all we know.”

“Right,” I said. “Sorry, wasn’t thinking.”

“No you weren’t,” she said. “You go get that girl, Norman.

“Yes ma’am,” I said.

“And, Norman?” She said as I turned to leave.

“Ma’am?”

“If you gotta rough up them bastards that took her, then you just go ahead and do so,” she said.

“I plan to,” I said. Then I leaned down and kissed her on the check. “I most certainly plan to.”

Ten minutes later I was heading south down County Road Two Thousand. The pull grew stronger the further I went, and when I was just ten minutes out of town, the pull directed me to the right and an abandoned building that had been sitting there next to the highway since the late Seventies.

I ignored the pull and passed by, not an easy task when magic is at play. But if that empty building was where the Brotherhood was keeping Maggie, driving right up to the place would go a big step toward announcing my presence to anyone inside. Especially if they were watching, and they’d be stupid not to be.

I found a side road a half a mile down the highway. I took it, turning right.

Gravel crunched and popped out from under the tires as I looked for a good place to pull over. It’s one of the little things you have to think about before you storm what might be a fortress chock full of murderous zealots and one dark wizard: Where to park the car.

It wasn’t long before I came across an access road that one of the local farmers used to get their equipment in and out of the field to my left. Just beyond that was a small copse of trees. I parked behind those so the car wouldn’t be seen from the road.

The sun had begun to set. I would be dark soon, but I still had a couple of hours before midnight. I’d packed the essentials before going back to Oz’s place. I went around and opened up the back of the Scout to retrieve them.

First, I’d need ammunition. I always prefer to go into one of these little capers without firing a single bullet, but that’s rarely ever happened. It’s like the old saying goes: I’d rather bring along two guns and a few dozen shells and not need them then to come to face to face with a colony of goblins and not have anything to shoot them with. It’s a fairly common saying in my circles anyway.

I packed the ammunition in my backpack along with a flashlight, a few chemical lights, the bag of food Grace had given me — A couple of sandwiches and a chunk of cold roast beef — along with a canteen of water. I’d also packed an assortment of magical items just in case.

I took of the coat and tossed it into the back of the Scout before pulling on the backpack.

Once I was ready I set off north, back the way I had come, back to where the tracking potion was pulling me. The empty building.

I could see it there silhouetted against the horizon. I’d driven by the beast most days for as long as I can remember, yet I can’t recall what the building had been used for before it had been abandoned. To me it looked like the kind of massive structure that would house a factory of some sort. I could imagine rows of assembly line machines and employees in grease-stained coveralls working the line, pushing through whatever product the factory had been built to make.

But I’d never heard of a working factory out here in the hundred or so years I’ve lived in Eudora. I’ve always ignored the place, wrote it off as I drove by, and I was beginning to wonder if, after all this time, that that was something the place, the building, wanted to happen.

That took my thoughts down a path I didn’t want them to go, so I continued forward, trekking across the unplanted field toward the old factory, pushing the thoughts that were forming in my brain regarding the building being alive out of my head.

But then, as the darkness fell one last thought slipped in. What if that’s what the building had wanted?






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Thursday, April 5, 2018

#036: FIRE AND BLOOD




ONCE ALEXANDER HAD FINISHED feeding, he set fire to the body, the room, and ultimately, the house to cover his tracks.

He stood outside and watched it burn. The house was north of Eudora, out deep in the country. No one would see the fire and call the authorities. He didn’t like this skulking about, but it was the vampire’s lot in life. It had been done for thousands of years. While there were humans that were aware of their existence, if the world at large was given this knowledge there would be nowhere to hide as they were hunted down.

So working in the shadows was what they did. It’s how they survived.

But ever since Brone had come into power, he’d made the darkness—the shadows—that much murkier.

Brone had a plan, a plan that many vampires, Alexander included, believed was best for the future of the vampire race. More important, the Elder believed. Brone had been sent to Kansas to begin work. Alexander and his brother had gone with him. In order to keep the plan moving forward, they had to attract as little attention as possible.

Not an easy task in this hovel of a town the humans called Eudora.

Alexander had always preferred life in the more metropolitan areas of the world. In a big city like New York, London, or Paris, it was nothing to pull a human into a dark alley, feed, and then leave the body there in the filth and grime.

But a small town? Sure, there weren’t as many people to watch out for, but there was something about small populations that made people pay more attention to what was going on around them. Plus, there weren’t many out of the way places in which to drop a body. Not unless you wanted to cart it out into the middle of nowhere, of which there were plenty of in this part of the country.

So, rather than pull his food off the streets and take it out to the sticks, he instead found an isolated home and a lone occupant. Yet, he couldn’t just feed with reckless abandon. He’d found the human, but he’d needed to talk to Brone first. He needed permission. Which rankled him some, but he understood the need for caution.

Brone had allowed the feeding, asking only that Alexander clean up after himself. Thus the fire, nature’s cleanser.

A black van pulled into the drive of the old house. It moved slowly, but with purpose. Alexander made no move to conceal himself, he knew who was behind the wheel.

Thomas, his brother, had dropped him off here at the old house before leaving on a task of his own. A task given to him by Brone. Alexander had offered to share his food, but he’d known that Thomas would decline, which he had certainly done.

His brother, while needing the life-sustaining blood that only the human race could provide, preferred not to take it from its source. It was something akin to the aversion some humans have for eating chicken from the bone. Thomas found the humans unclean and did not care to touch them if it could be avoided. But then, Thomas had always been obsessed with staying clean, even back before they had been turned.

Thomas stepped from the van, a scowl on his face. Alexander tried to recall a time when his brother wasn’t scowling, and smiled when he found that he could not.

“A little extreme, don’t you think,” Thomas said and pulled a small metal flask from a pouch on the tactical gear he wore.

Thomas mirrored Alexander in dress. All black like a soldier from a special forces unit. Except neither of them carried weapons.

“Brone said to tidy up,” Alexander said.

Thomas only grunted as he drank from the flask. Alexander knew that it contained human blood, plus a chemical additive that kept it fresh, but more importantly, kept it from congealing.

“Did you complete your task?” Alexander asked.

“Of course,” Thomas said. “She’s in the van now.”

“She the right age this time?” Alexander asked.

“She is, and I will not be blamed for the last one. I took who Brone chose. If she was too old, that is his fault, not mine.”

“That is between you and Brone, brother,” Alexander said.

Thomas only grunted.

The two stood in silence for almost a full minute as the house burned.

“What are we going to do about Norman Oklahoma?” Thomas said.

“Nothing,” Alexander said. “You know Brone’s wishes.”

“Bertram Brone is nothing more than a bottom feeder who has had one good idea in a lifetime of bad decisions,” Thomas said. Then he spit. “I follow him only because the Elder has commanded it.”

“Brone’s plan should make you happy,” Alexander said. “If he succeeds, you will never have to feed off of another human again.”

“I said it was a good idea. That doesn’t make Brone fit to lead.”

“Regardless, he does lead,” Alexander said. “And he said that Oklahoma is not to be touched.”

“Oklahoma has no idea what we are doing in his town. He’s too busy dealing with this Brotherhood business. Now is the right time to strike, while his head is elsewhere.”

Alexander sighed. “I want Oklahoma dead as much as you, Thomas. But Brone—”

“Do you not feel ashamed?” Thomas interrupted. “Do you not feel the fire in your belly whenever you think of the way the human humiliated us? It’s happened twice now! We never would have let a filthy human get away with that.”

“Of course I feel ashamed,” Alexander raised his voice. “I have thought of nothing but bathing in his blood for two days. He will die by our hands, trust me on that one, brother. But only when Brone says.”

“Bah!” Thomas turned back to the van. “You shame yourself with this unconditional loyalty that you have for someone of such low caliber.”

“My loyalty is with the Elder, not Brone.”

Again there was silence between them.

“We don’t know where Oklahoma is,” Alexander said. “He’s off hunting the Brotherhood. How can we take advantage of his distraction if we don’t know where he is?”

“He will have to come back home eventually,” Thomas said. “Or his office. You can wait for him at the one, I at the other. When he arrives, he dies.”

When is the appropriate word,” Alexander said.

“We will drop the girl off with Brone,” Thomas said. “After that, we will no longer be needed until tomorrow. If Oklahoma does not arrive by then, we will think of something else, but I will not allow that man to walk much longer on this earth if I can help it.”

“Fine,” Alexander said. “But we must do it in such a way that it does not get back to Brone. It would not do to have the Elder learn that we disobeyed.”

“Agreed.”

The house continued to burn. The two brothers watched the blaze in silence for nearly five minutes before Alexander asked:

“Did you tell Brone about Jenner? About what he is?”

“No,” Thomas said before taking another drink from his flask. “It has no impact on what Brone is trying to do. Besides, I felt it prudent not to embarras myself in front of him once again, not after he learned what Oklahoma had done to the two of us.”

Alexander didn’t respond.

“Why?” Thomas said. “Did you?”

“Of course not,” said Alexander. “You are right. He does not need to know. If, and when he does, I will tell him. Until then, it wouldn’t hurt to keep that little piece of information to ourselves. You never know when something like that could come in handy.”

“Quite,” Thomas replied.

The two went back to watching the house burn. The flames roared high and bright as the internal structure began to collapse in on itself, creating the kind of chaotic symphony one would expect to hear in Hell. So cacophonous was the sound that neither vampire, despite their enhanced senses, heard the car pull into the drive behind them.

Before the two had even an inkling of an idea that they were no longer alone, a woman ran past them. She headed straight for the burning house, stopping only when the heat grew too intense for her.

She turned back to Alexander and his brother. He could see tears in her eyes.

She stumbled up to them.

“What happened?” She said, the panic more than apparent in her voice. “Was he in there? Was my father in there?”

When neither of them answered, she did the unthinkable. She reached out and took Thomas by the shoulders and shook him.

“Answer me,” she screamed.

Thomas did not hesitate. He simply took her head in both hands, twisted, and broke her neck. He let go and she dropped to the ground.

Alexander, watching her drop, wondered for a moment where she had come from, then he turned in time to see the terrified face of a man behind the wheel of an old minivan. The woman must have come with him.

Alexander watched as the man put the van into reverse and sped backwards from the driveway, kicking up rocks and dust. Once in the road, the van shot forward and out of sight beyond the trees that ringed the property.

“Yes,” Thomas said, a hint of a smile ghosting across his face. “You tidy up quite nicely.”

Alexander cursed and ran after the van.

A vampire had many attributes that make it superior to humans in every way. A vampire can’t be killed, except by silver. A vampire is ten times as strong, and they can run almost fifty miles an hour.

In other words, Alexander caught the van less than a half mile down the road. Running alongside the vehicle he could see the panicked driver inside. Alexander smiled at the man, showing his fangs.

The man screamed and the van shot forward. But before he could get away, Alexander rammed his shoulder into the side of the van. It rocked on its chassis, but it was enough to cause the driver to lose control.

The van spun and then flipped as the driver, attempting to get the boxy vehicle under control, over corrected. It landed on the driver’s side and slid off into the ditch.

Alexander jumped, landing on the sliding door of the passenger side. He looked in through the passenger side window at the man, still belted in, still conscious, but scrambling to try and free himself. He was too worked up, however. He didn’t seem to have a lot of control over his limbs as they flailed about, trying to work the seat belt release.

He looked up to see Alexander at the window and tried moving faster, though it did him little good.

Alexander pulled the door from the car and flung it aside. He reached in as the man tried to back away, but he had nowhere to go. Alexander grabbed the belt and yanked it from the van, tossing it out with the door. Then he grabbed up the human, pulled out by one arm, and sent him sailing through the air to meet the door and the seat belt.

The man hit the ground with a back breaking thud, and before he could move, Alexander was on top of him. Having just fed, he made the man’s end quick, breaking his neck like Thomas had done to his companion.

Then, throwing the man over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, he walked back to join his brother at the burning house. Without a word he walked over, and into, the blaze with the body, and dumped him off near the center of the house.

By the time he returned, his clothes were nearly burned free from him.

“The girl?” Alexander asked.

Thomas pointed to the burning house and then said, “The minivan? Are you just going to leave it out there on the road?”

“We’re going to have to drag it over to the river and dump it in.”

“Then we drop of the girl and go kill Norman Oklahoma,” Thomas said.

“If things go our way,” Alexander said. “Oklahoma won’t live to see nightfall tomorrow.”






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Monday, April 2, 2018

#035: THE COMIC BANK




“WHAT HAPPENED THEN?” DIANA asked. “I mean, it’s obvious that you survived.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m still kicking.”

We still sat in the squad car which was now parked in front of Police Headquarters.

“So you’ve never found out who you were before that day?”

“I’ve learned a little,” I said. “I was Norman Oklahoma before that day, I know that much. I fought monsters, I know that too. In fact, that green band I wore signified a special unit in the Union Army. We were monster fighters, though we had a few of them on our side. The problem was that the Confederates had more than their share fighting for them.”

“Who was Faraday?”

“Biter.”

“Biter?”

“Vampire,” I said. “And an old one to boot.”

“So what happened? You kill him?”

“No,” I said. “There’s really not that much to tell. I escaped, settled here in Eudora, and I’ve been fighting monsters ever since.”

Diana was bright enough to see that there was more to the story, more that I didn’t feel like talking about. She was also bright enough to let it drop.

“Help me in?” She asked.

“Of course,” I said.

“What’s your next move?” She asked as I helped her up the steps.

“I have sources,” I said.

“Sources? Like monster sources?”

“Yeah. Most anything of that variety that happens here they know about it. I’ll see if they can point me in the right direction. Otherwise I’ll head back to Frank’s for the tracking potion. I mean, I have to do something,” I said. “I ain’t fond of waiting.”

“You’ll fill me in?” She asked.

“You know it.”

“So, where you going then?” She asked. “Where does one go to get information on the monster world?”

“The bank,” I said.

Once upon a time, in the small town of Eudora, Kansas, on the Northwest corner of Eighth and Main, there stood a bank.

Chapman’s Bank of Eudora had been family owned since 1857. It had been the only bank in town until the Eudora Savings and Loan went up right across the street back in ‘64.

Five years ago, Ben Chapman moved the bank to a new lot on the south end of town out near the highway. The move made sense considering the town had begun expanding in that direction. New housing, new businesses. It was all happening out where you entered and exited State Highway Ten.

When Chapman’s Bank made the announcement that they were going to move, twenty-two year old Nicky Spencer, fresh out of college, bought the building that the Chapman Bank was due to exit. Once the move had been complete, she converted the old Chapman Bank building into a comic book store.

She did little in the way of remodeling, preferring to stick with whole bank motif. All high end books were kept in the cage behind the counter, the even more rare and expensive in the vault.

Nicky even kept the drive up window service so that customers with a weekly pull subscription could swing by each week and pick up their comics without leaving their car. It didn’t get utilized much. Most die-hard collectors and even just general fans of comics preferred to come inside to browse all the new releases and talk shop with fellow customers. The window did come in handy, however, on rainy days.

The Comic Bank is what she called her store, and it was quite famous among the comic community around the country. Readers from as far as Topeka and Kansas City made the trek in each week just to pick up books. This level of popularity was due partly to the idea of turning a bank into a comic store, and many first time customers showed up just to see it. But most stayed because Nicky ran a clean and friendly establishment that made everyone feel like they belonged. Plus, she’d converted two of the back three offices into one big gaming room. On Saturdays she’d have gaming tournaments featuring all types of games: Role playing, collectible card, and table top.

But what really kept the Comic Bank afloat and paid all the bills when many readers were switching to digital comics was the Basement. Yeah, that’s with a capital B.

When the building was still the home of the Chapman Bank of Eudora, the basement held the book keeping staff. Now, as the Comic Bank, the Basement was used, as far as most folks were concerned, for storage. For those few of us in the life, however, the Basement was the place to go if you needed to purchase various magical items, spell components, and other assorted objects linked to the occult.

It was also a great place to get information.

When I entered the Comic Bank, I found Nicky in her usual spot: Behind the counter, sitting on a stool, and reading a comic.

She rose as I entered, which only reminded me how incredibly intimidating a figure she was. She was nearly seven feet tall with muscles like one of them ladies of professional wrestling. And she moved like a tiger on the hunt. She was grace with a hint of danger, a coiled spring ready to strike.

But it wasn’t her size or the way she carried herself that made her stand out in a crowd.

She had ebony skin, green eyes, and flaming red hair that reached the small of her back. She was, not to put too fine a point on it, a rather striking woman.

“Norman,” she said as I approached the counter. “That’s twice you’ve been in my shop this week. I feel honored.”

“I’m afraid this ain’t no social call, Nicky. I’m in need of some info if you got it.”

I’d been in earlier in the week to pick up my new books. I’d been reading comics since the Second World War. Back then we read a comic, then tossed it. Usually donating the paper toward the war effort. It’s still how I read books today. I hold no truck with this whole collecting nonsense. Of course, I don’t go around telling folks that. Not around here, anyway. If these people found out I was dumping books off at the recycling center they’d probably string me up.

“Ask away and if I got the info, it’s yours,” Nicky said.

About that time the front door dinged open and two young fellas walked in. They were loud and laughing and just being generally obnoxious. Typical young people behavior. I ignored them as they crossed over to the new release books.

“What do you know about a religious cult called The Brotherhood of Minos?”

“Not much. They worship a deity they call Asterion, refer to him as the Bull God. Other than that, they don’t have much of a presence. I would classify them as Mostly Harmless.”

“I have reason to believe that they may have abducted a girl,” I said.

“Maggie Keaton? I’d heard about that. Such a shame. But the Brotherhood of Minos? They hand out pamphlets at high school football games. They don’t kidnap people.”

“I have it on good authority that they have,” I said.

Then she glanced over at the two fellas over by the new releases. Each had a comic in hand, the covers folded back.

“Gentleman,” Nicky said in a voice they could both hear. “We don’t treat our books that way here. If you are going to read, please handle the books carefully.”

The two fellas each gave her a nod and held the books in both hands, cradling them gingerly, almost sarcastically. Then they looked at each other and laughed.

“Anyway,” I said. “Oz is brewing up a tracking potion now, but that’s gonna take a few hours.”

“A potion?” she said. “What’s he using?”

“We got a lock of her hair.”

“Then what’s he wasting time with a potion for. He could cast a tracking spell that will lead you right to her.”

“He tried that,” I said. “It didn’t end well.”

I told her about the goblins. Then I told her about the ogres.

“Goblins and ogres,” she said. “Whoever’s running the Brotherhood out here has some pull.”

“Yeah, more than I’d like. Anyway, while I waited for Oz, I figured I’d beat the bushes a bit. Thought maybe I could get to her a mite quicker.”

She thought for a moment.

“Damn, Norman,” she said, finally. “There are over a dozen places I can think of just off the top of my head. And that’s here in town. They could be in Desoto, Baldwin, McLouth, Gardner, Lecompton. Heck, they could be set up in KC for all we know.”

“What about Harold?” I asked. “He in?”

“He’s running the counter down in the Basement,” she said. “But he’s not going to know much more than me. We were talking about the kidnapping earlier.”

“Yeah, but that was before you knew it was the Brotherhood. Maybe he’s heard something about them specifically.”

“If he had, he would have told me.”

“Yeah, maybe I’ll go down and talk to him anyway.”

“Be my guest,” she said. “I hope he has something more to offer than—” she stopped talking. Her eyes glued on the two fellas standing by the new releases again.

As before, they were reading books with the covers folded back.

“Excuse me,” she said.

She strode out from behind the counter and stalked toward the two fellas. Engrossed as they were in each other’s comics, all of their attention put towards pointing out images in each book to each other and then giggling like a couple of little boys, they hadn’t noticed that doom was descending down upon them.

“Gentleman,” Nicky said in a low, calm voice.

The two looked up. Nicky towered over them.

She bent slightly and smiled, showing teeth that gleamed like the arctic snow.

“You’ll both be wanting to place those two comics back on the racks as gently as possible before I fold the both of you in half as a tribute to the way you are treating my books.”

The two guys could only gape.

“Furthermore, you will both leave my store, never to return. If I see the two of you in here again, I’ll reach my hand,” she held out her right hand. It ended in long, blood-red nails, “down each of your throats, pull out your lungs, and show them to you. We on the same page here, boys?

The two fellas dropped their books to the floor and ran from the store as fast as a pair of Olympic sprinters. One of them had tears streaming from his eyes.

“What’s all this commotion?” A dwarf had come up the stairs from the Basement, and stood glowering up at us.

By dwarf I mean just that. Like what you might read about in a fantasy novel. He stood at a little under four feet, had a beard of black that he’d tucked into his belt, and would have looked more at home in a horned helmet and chain mail then the t-shirt, jeans, and trucker’s cap.

“What commotion?” Nicky asked, laughing. “I was just throwing out a couple of kids. I didn’t even raise my voice.”

“What the hell are you doing here?” The dwarf asked, turning to me.

“Harold,” I said, tipping my hat. “What can you tell me about the Brotherhood of Minos?”

“The Brotherhood?” Harold scowled. But then, he always scowled. Then his eyes widened and they looked from me to Nicky then back to me. “The Brotherhood. Damn, I’d forgotten that they’ve been lurking about. They must be the ones took that girl last night. Makes sense, what with the Fall Equinox and all.”

“Fall Equinox?” I said.

“You know,” Harold said. “For someone who’s been hunting monsters for over a century you think you’d know a thing or two.”

I didn’t respond.

“Fine,” Harold said. “The Brotherhood of Minos isn’t new. They have roots that go back to ancient Greece. Like Zeus and Hera and all that, right?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Well, they haven’t had much of a presence the last few hundred years but back in the day they spent a lot of time killing a lot of people. Fourteen every year to be exact. Seven boys, seven girls. Sacrifices to the so-called Bull God.”

“Fourteen?” I said. “But Maggie is the only disappearance that’s been reported.”

“From what I recall, this would go on for fourteen nights. And it starts the night of the Fall Equinox, midnight to be exact. First a girl, then a boy, then a girl and so on.”

“So they may be thinking of taking someone else?” Nicky said.

“Any idea where they might be setting up shop?” I asked

“Hell, I don’t know,” Harold said. “They could be holed up in your bedroom for all I know.”

That, for some reason, made him laugh. Then he turned his back on us and tromped back down into the basement.

“Thanks, Harold,” I said, a smile in my voice. “You were a big help.”

“You’ll figure it out, Norman,” Harold called back. “You’re a big boy.”

“Wait, Harold,” I jogged over to the stairs. “One of these guys from the Brotherhood is a wizard.”

“So?” Harold said.

“So, you got anything down there that might help me in some fashion tonight?” I asked.

Harold thought about it for a moment.

“What about the knuckles?” Nicky said. “They’d come in handy.”

“Yeah,” Harold said. “They surely would.” Then he looked up at me. “You’d have to get in close to the guy.”

“I try not to get too close if I have my way,” I said “It’s why I carry guns. But I can get in there if I need to.”

“Then come on down,” Harold said. “I have just what you need.”






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JUST CLICK HERE or click the cover below.