The light kissed his face as the sun dipped behind the mountains, a pink hue spreading across the open sky. A klaxon sounded somewhere behind me as I moved closer to him. I studied him, his faded jeans and worn t-shirt as his gaze shifted to the last of the townspeople scurrying to enter the city.
The humming began, my body, involuntary tensing up as I watched him, a burn in my chest inching its way to the surface. The sweet, tart zing of ozone perforated the air. My heart leaped as he stretched his arms out the majestic scene shifting to a purple-blue haze just inches from him.
“I thought I would find you here,” I said as I moved in behind him.
A chuckle escaped his lips as he stepped away from the barrier, turning his head to face me. “Jonah! My friend how what’s up?”
I smiled, as he moved in beside me, slapping my back and embracing me in a quick hug.
“Jacob, why do you do that? The last thing I want to do it tell you, mother, how her oldest son got vaporized by the barrier because he liked to stand too close to it.”
Jacob eyed me his gaze drifting down to the ceramic jar I held in my hand. “We all have our vises to survive this hell of a life.”
“Yeah, at least mine doesn’t kill me,” I said, moving the jar to my lips savoring the burn of the amber liquid as it floated down my throat. “I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
Jacob smiled his gaze moving back to the barrier, “It’s starting early tonight. I bet they ram the barrier.”
I follow his gaze to the silhouettes of several creatures forming in the horizon. “They are smarter than that; they’ll stop before they hit.”
“Care to bet on that?”
“Yeah, winner buys drinks?” I said.
Jacob nodded as the creatures charged toward the town. It's humanoid features a blur as claws extended from its fingers — the coarse black fur covering its body waving in the wind. Static crackled as it impacted the barrier, a shimmer running across as several more creatures charged.
“Damn, I guess they never learn,” I said.
Jacob laughed as he turned to town. I shook my head as I moved to follow. “Um, I am a little short today.”
A broad smile crossed Jacob’s face. “I guess that means you’ll owe me.”
The barrier popped and cracked followed by the sound of breaking glass. Jacob and Jonah paused turning their heads back toward the barrier. One creature was pushing its arm through the barrier. Splinters and cracks were running through the barrier.
"What the hell," I said looking over at the empty spot where Jacob used to be. I turn my head to see Jacob running full speed back to the barrier.
“What the hell is that noise? What is going on?” I yelled at him, but I didn't need a reply, my eyes shifted past him to the arm of the creature pushing its way through the barrier, several cracks splintering away across the barrier.
My heart plummeted as Jacob pivoted towards a cart of farming supplies. "What the fuck. How the hell is it doing that?" I yelled as my body was going frigid and locking in place.
“No clue,” he yelled grabbing as he scooped up an ax. The sounds of screams filtered around me as more creatures impacted the barrier.
Jacob shouldered his weapon and glancing my way. “Dude get your ass into gear. We need the alarm going and General Richard needs to mobilize the defenses!”
I tried, but my body froze, as I watched Jacob charge the creature. My eyes fell on a small girl her leg at an awkward angle only inches from the creatures outstretched claws. The creature was struggling to pull his last leg through the barrier.
Jacob jumped into the air the ax arching toward the creatures back and slide harmlessly off its hide.
A klaxon roared to life in the background followed by General Richard's voice. "Everyone that isn't essential personnel, please get indoors; I repeat all non-essential personnel, please move indoors. This isn’t a drill!"
Relief and loathing coursed through me my mind registered that someone had alerted everyone. The creature stretched its arm toward the little girl ignoring Jacob's attacks completely. Its claws cut a thin line across her leg.
The pain and scream in the girls face finally got my legs working again. I sprinted towards her as I noticed Jacob bring the Ax back preparing for another strike. I slide in beside her dust billowing around us. Digging my feet into the dirt as I wrapped my arm around her pulling us away. The creature's claws stabbed down digging into the earth where her leg used to be. I turn away and focus on the girl the sound of boots rushing towards us. I glanced over at Jacob, and my heart sinks as Jacob falls to his knees blood pouring from his ruined side. The world around me devolving into chaos fading to black
"I don't remember when they stopped the creature's attack," I said as I sat beside Jacobs prone form. Tubes and wires were running from his body. "When I saw you lying there my brain shut down."
Nurses came and went as the days drifted by. “They had to up the voltage of the barrier, and they seem to have a stronger resistance to it.”
“Am I dead?” rang through my ears jerking me awake. My eyes moved over to Jacob, and his blue eyes staring back at me.
My heart, and before I could control myself, I had closed the distance pressing my lips against his. "I didn't think you would ever wake up," I said as my lips refused to leave his. Jacob pushed away looking at me as tears streamed ran down my face.
“Jonah,” Is all he said as he studied me.
“I’m sorry I shouldn’t have. It’s just…”
Jacob pressed a hand to my lips. “No don’t, I feel the same.”
My eyes widened as our lips came back together.
The world around us ceased as what we kept bottled inside moved to the surface and overtaking us.
Life can wait a little while longer.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, was published in May 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, on the theme of identity, was published in November 2018. A former clinical psychologist, Anne is also a book blogger with a special interest in fictional therapists.
At first he thought it was a joke. But ten hours of footie day after day soon loses its funny side. He wondered if he’d been kept back with the wheezers and dickheads, the kind of lad you’d prefer to have fielding for the enemy, but no. Some of these stay-behinders were medal-winning athletes. Some of them had university degrees.
Sam used to enjoy kicking a ball around, but this was no game. The officers set up the tournaments as if the men’s lives depended on the outcome. Yet there was never any pride in winning, only the shame of losing and the gut-curdling punishment of cleaning out the latrines.
The squaddies felt their dejection all the more keenly whenever they heard from a former colleague: an ink-blotted letter from Bertie with half the words blacked out or a YouTube clip of Gavin with a towel round his head, pretending to be Lawrence of Arabia. Their mothers were grateful that no-one was pointing a gun at them on the playing fields of Catterick, but that was no consolation. Sam and the rest had joined up in a spirit of bravado and self-sacrifice. Soccer stars weren’t heroes to them.
Tension rippled through the camp when they were shown a copy of The Times with a eulogy for Bertie, describing him scrambling out of his trench and plodding through a muddy no man’s land, heedless of the enemy fire. They hurled their popcorn at the cinema screen as Pathe News sombrely announced Arthur’s final mission over Dresden. Their cursing drowned out the voice of the newscaster accompanying the footage of Steve in his dugout at Goose Green. Finally, after Gavin was paraded through the streets of Wootton Bassett draped in the Union Jack, Sam and the rest of his team could stomach no more. They refused to spend another minute dribbling a ball across a field.
The lads were terrified they’d be shot for insubordination. Lucky for them, the politicos had recently instituted a modernisation programme for the armed services. It might have been due to the shrinking public purse, or lawyers shouting about human rights, but, underneath it all, was the fact that computerised weaponry had rendered warfare less labour intensive. Bodies like Sam’s were surplus to requirements.
A team of management consultants were sent to Catterick. These suits proposed an away day to analyse the problem from different points of view. All ranks were encouraged to have their say.
Sam was rather chuffed when the facilitator scrawled his words in capital letters on the flipchart. “You want to be a hero?” she beamed. “I want you to be a hero, but how are we going to achieve it when we’re running out of wars?”
Her smile, her confidence in his abilities, soon took his thoughts away from soldiering. Indeed, the long rambling speeches of the bigwigs were sending him to sleep. Sam spent the rest of the workshop dreaming of persuading the facilitator out of her chalk-striped skirt-suit and into his bunk.
If the mechanics of the solution were ever articulated, he was unaware of it. All Sam knew was that they were to pack their kit bags and prepare for an overnight flight.
Strapped into his seat, banter criss-crossing the plane, Sam was too excited to think about the woman in the chalk-striped skirt-suit. Bertie and Arthur, Steve and Gavin had all done their patriotic duty. At last he’d have the chance to do the same.
Dawn was breaking as they landed, a pale light picking out a cluster of Nissen huts beyond the runway. Bleary eyed, they disembarked and shouldered their packs.
Across the yards of asphalt, Sam could make out some men milling about near the huts. Despite their uniforms, they looked too undisciplined to constitute a welcome party.
As the squadron marched towards them, he realised why the men appeared so unsoldierly. They couldn’t possibly stand to attention with bodies so deformed. Some were missing limbs, some disfigured by burns; one looked as if he’d had half his face blown off and another wore a tin mask over his, like some alien from Doctor Who. Sam shuddered to think what grotesquery lay behind it.
Stumbling over his disgust and disappointment, Sam found himself momentarily out of step. They hadn’t even given him twenty-four hours to feel like a proper soldier. Now, it seemed, he was to be an orderly at a military field hospital. He’d do anything to reboard the plane and fly back to Catterick. To parachute down to the football pitch and start kicking the ball from end to end.
He wished he could get his hands on that bitch in the chalk-striped skirt-suit. He’d give her some words for her flipchart all right. Words with four letters starting with f and c. Yeah, and as soon as they were up on the chart he’d teach her what they meant. He’d rip off her business suit and bayonet her f-ing c right up to her throat.
“Get a grip,” hissed the guy behind him.
Sam reddened, wondering if his mouth had betrayed his thoughts. He composed his features as the troop processed past the casualties towards the barracks.
They came to a halt at a large dormitory. Instead of the wooden bunks with rough grey blankets he’d been expecting, they were each assigned an iron bed with starched white sheets. The order came to put down their packs and change into pyjamas. Sam was surprised, but the prospect of mopping up shit and puke would be a lot more bearable after a kip.
A hand on his shoulder shook him awake. Rubbing his eyes, he propped himself up on the pillows. A figure in a white apron and pleated headdress, like a matron from a black-and-white movie, shoved a thermometer under his tongue.
Sam glanced down the line of identical narrow beds, each with a bemused-looking lad in khaki pyjamas muted by a thermometer. Yet he could see the sense in giving them all a check-up before foisting them on the patients. A common cold that a healthy guy would take in his stride could flatten one of those crips.
A group of white-coats progressed from bed to bed, checking their notes at each station. Sam couldn’t hear what was said, but he saw the revulsion pass across each soldier’s face as the contingent moved on. He felt reassured not to be the only one disturbed by their assignment. It helped him resign himself somehow. Mucking out in an infirmary wasn’t exactly seeing action, but he could get a whiff of it through proximity to men who’d drawn the short straw under enemy fire.
He straightened his back as the doctors neared his bed. He wondered if he ought to salute, but no-one else had done. He wished the nurse would come and relieve him of the thermometer. He wanted to give a good impression of himself.
The white-coats paused at the bed next to his, muttering between themselves about double amputees. Wide-eyed, the soldier watched them. Sam turned his head aside when the guy began to cry.
By the time the doctors reached him, Sam was resolved. He’d wanted to be a nurse even less than he’d wanted to be a footballer but, if that was what the army required of him, he’d rise to the challenge. He’d mop floors, empty bedpans, learn to dress suppurating wounds if need be. He’d do it cheerfully. He’d do it well.
The head honcho barked at him from the end of the bed. “Ah, so you’re the chap who wants to be a hero?” He didn’t wait for an answer before dissolving into a huddle of white coats.
Sam grinned as widely as the thermometer in his mouth would allow. He wasn’t alarmed by their mutterings about grenades, mustard gas and incendiary bombs. Their voices formed the backing track to his reverie: he’d earn his stripes for his bravery in caring for the guys who’d crawled through all that shit and come out the other end.
The doctor cocked his head towards him. “Great job you’re doing.” His dad had said exactly the same on the day of the passing-out parade.
The team moved to the next bed, apart from one woman who lingered behind. She looked almost too young to be a doctor, too good-looking. Sam imagined peeling off her white coat to find her pink and naked underneath. In reality he knew he’d have to take his time getting to know her, but that was okay. He assumed they’d both be here for the duration.
Her smile made his dick tingle as she passed him a clipboard and pen. “Consent form,” she said. “Sign and date it beside the cross at the bottom.”
Sam tongued the thermometer to the corner of his mouth. “You’re not in the army then?”
She inclined her head flirtatiously. “What makes you say that?”
Sam stole a cursory glance at the printed form. Third-degree burns to torso, amputation above right knee, removal of left shoulder and lower jaw. “The army issues orders. It never asks permission.”
She gazed uneasily at her colleagues as they shuffled to the next bed. “I suppose this is kind of special,” she said.
Sam would’ve liked to have chatted longer, but it wouldn’t be a great start to their relationship if he got her into trouble for dawdling. He scratched his name in the space provided. “When can I see you again?”
She seemed to recoil. He hadn’t shaved and he knew he’d have bags under his eyes from lack of sleep, but he’d always thought he had the type of face that pleased the girls. Then she giggled, “Well, I’ll see you in theatre but of course you won’t see me.”
So they were putting him to work in the operating theatre, right in the middle of the action. He’d never wanted to be a butcher’s assistant, but if it meant being closer to her … “Why won’t I see you?”
She looked confused, as if they weren’t speaking the same language. “You’ll be unconscious. We’re not so barbaric as to operate without anaesthetic.”
The lad in the next bed had stopped crying and was gawping at him and shaking his head. Sam crossed his legs under the bed clothes, petrified he’d piss himself. “What exactly have I signed up for?”
“Oh don’t worry about it,” said the doctor. “Everybody gets the jitters just before surgery.”
The shambling reception party when they stepped off the plane: heroism displayed in scars, in burns, in sacrificed limbs. One battle was as good as another in manufacturing heroes. The public didn’t care how their injuries were acquired.
Sam’s voice was nothing more than a whimper. “What is this place?”
His neighbour leaned across from the next bed. He could hardly stifle his laughter. “It’s where they turn you into a hero, cretin. Isn’t that what you want?”
The Dream Detective
“Sorry Beth. I don’t know why. I get eight hours a night.”
“And you’ve been forgetting lately too. Like when you were writing up the McKenzie murder. You left out some details.”
“Good thing you were there to remind me. I’m going to the doctor tomorrow; he’s going to test me for sleep apnea.”
“All right Joe, but in the meantime, I guess I’m your backup memory.”
Joseph set up his sleep apnea machine next to the bed. He had no idea that this machine would be a key to solving crimes.
Something in the setup manual caught Joe’s attention.
The device has built-in WIFI, enabling it to send sleep data to your doctor. It also allows the manufacturer to update your system with the latest software.
“Everything is about technology now. How did we ever get along without apps, cell phones and the internet?” Joe settled into bed with his mask on, allowing air to flow into his lungs and breathe freely. He fell asleep in minutes.
The next day, Joe met Beth early to start their day. “So Joe, how did you sleep?”
“Great. I really feel rested. In fact, I even remembered some of my dreams.”
“You know the Williams murder?”
“I got a lead in my dream.”
Beth was skeptical. “Were you drinking before you went to sleep?”
“No Beth. I’m serious. I saw a woman shooting Williams. I couldn’t identify her with any detail, but she was white, tall and had dark hair. That’s not all. A name occurred to me in the dream, Maria or Marla.”
“No last name, no address?”
“Stop messing with me, I’m serious.”
“All right, I’ll go over the case and see if I can find a link to a woman named Maria or Marla.” Beth did some work on her tablet as Joe drove them to the sister of the victim, Linda Washington.
“Ms. Washington. Did your brother ever have a relationship with a Maria or Marla?”
Linda was shaken by the question. “You don’t think?”
“Think what ma’am?”
“His college girlfriend, Marla Green. They haven’t seen each other in ten years. Why? Do you think she was involved?”
Beth took notes while Joe continued the questioning. “Nothing we can go into at this time, just investigating. What was their relationship like?”
“Tony and Marla were engaged, but they broke up when she was caught with drugs. She told police that she was framed, but Joe ended it when she was convicted.” Beth tapped on her police tablet, looking up Marla Green. She showed it to Joe.
“It says here that Marla was released from prison three months ago, just before your brother was murdered.”
“Oh my God. Then she did it.”
“Hold on now. That’s not proof, just a lead. Has Marla contacted you or anyone else? Do you have any idea where she is?”
“I’m sorry detective. I don’t.”
“Well, just make sure you let us know if you do. Don’t try to confront her. She probably doesn’t have anything to do with your brother’s murder.”
“All right, but I’ll do some searching and let you know.”
“Just make some calls. Don’t try to meet with her.”
“All right detective. I understand.”
Beth and Joe headed back to the station. “Joe, that was freaky. Your dream was on target.”
“Yes Beth. Track down Marla Green so we can pay her a visit.”
By the end of the day, Beth had some information about Marla Green. “Joe. I couldn’t find a home address for Marla, but she works at a clothing company on the peninsula, San Mateo. We can go there tomorrow and question her.”
“Sounds good Beth. Maybe I’ll dream up more info tonight.”
“See if you can get her cell phone number.” They laugh.
That night, Joe was anxious as he went to bed. How was it possible that this name came to him in a dream? Would it ever happen again?
The next morning Joe woke up, refreshed and ready to interview Marla Green. When he got to the station, Beth was waiting for him. “Well Joe? Spill it.”
“Sorry Beth, nothing as specific as a name, but I did see another image of the woman after she shot the man. She dropped something as she was running away, a small item, size of a pack of cards.”
“Hmm. Let’s stop by the crime scene again before we visit Marla.”
Joe and Beth went to the alley in Chinatown, San Francisco, where Tony Williams was shot. It was dirty, with dumpsters, broken glass and garbage from local restaurants. They each took a side of the alley, turning over anything that might hide the mysterious item Joe dreamed about.
“Joe, I found something, behind the dumpster.” Using her glove to protect any evidence Beth held up a small metal container, like a band-aid box. It was dirty and bent. Beth could tell by its weight that something was inside. She photographed the item with her cell phone, and then flipped open the lid.
“OMG Joe. Do you see what I see?” She handed it to him.
“Four bullets, still in their jacket. Get these to ballistics Beth. See if they match the one that killed Tony Williams. We’ll wait for the analysis before seeing Marla Green.”
“Right away Joe. By the way, see if you can dream me up a husband tonight.”
“If only I could dear Beth. You deserve it.”
Joe and Beth met for breakfast before their shift the next day.
“Well, any more clues?” Beth spread butter on her blueberry muffin and looked at Joe with admiration.
“Yes. More than clues. I think providence may be rewarding me for patient service. You know, I could have become a criminal, seeking vengeance for the death of my father.”
Beth’s mood turned. “I’m sorry Joe. I didn’t know you were thinking about your father. Maybe he’s looking down on you and smiling.”
“Maybe Beth. I do feel relieved. The nightmares have stopped. You really think I’m getting help from above?”
“I’d like to think so.” Beth smiled. “Oh, and ballistics confirmed that the bullets we found do match the one that killed Tony Williams. Guess that makes Marla Green our primary suspect.”
“Maybe not Beth. In my dream last night, the woman who shot Tony spoke to another woman. She said ‘It’s done Marla, you can pay me later’.”
“That makes Marla the one who hired the killer. Guess it’s time to pay her a visit.” They drove to San Mateo to confront her.
“My name is Detective Rossi, this is my partner, Detective Johansson. We need to see Marla Green.” The receptionist called for Marla over the intercom. She came to the front office right away.
“I’m Marla Green. What is this about?”
“You’re going to have to come with us to the station.”
Marla knew she was caught. She didn’t resist as Beth led her to their car.
At the station, Joe continued the interview. “Ms. Green, who killed Tony Williams?”
“Right to the point. How did you know I was involved?”
“Old fashioned police work Ms. Green. You were engaged to him before you were caught dealing drugs.”
“I was framed. I never sold drugs.”
“That’s not what the jury thought.”
“I know. Tony set me up. He was the drug dealer.”
“We have evidence that you paid someone to kill Williams. Are we wrong?”
“No. But the person who killed him is dead. Avenged by his gang. I was just the messenger.”
“Beth, place Ms. Green under arrest. We’ll let the district attorney sort out the details.”
Detectives Rossi and Johansson continued to solve crimes, relying on clues Joe had while dreaming. Commendations and promotions were given to both detectives. They were even transferred to special investigations, the unit that handled the most difficult cases. Of course, they kept their methods and secret to themselves, not that anyone would believe they were solving crimes with the help of dreams.
They maintained a routine of meeting for breakfast before the start of shift. Beth was particularly superstitious about making any changes.
“What’s our next case Joe?”
“A mob hit in the Marina district Beth. Abby Palmer, an assistant district attorney, was found in her condo. Major case just turned it over to us.”
“When did they find the body?”
“An hour ago. The housekeeper called the police.”
When they got to the condo, Joe walked the rooms while Beth opened the victim’s computer. Her technical skills quickly paid off.
“Joe, come here.” Beth scrolled some documents on the screen.
“She was getting death threats. Apparently her investigation into the mob got a little too close. I’ll need more time with this to put together a complete picture.”
“All right. Take the computer back to the station. I didn’t see anything obvious that identifies the killer. But the techs will get us forensics by tomorrow. Maybe we’ll find some DNA or prints, but I doubt it. Aside from our dead Ms. Palmer, the condo looks pristine.”
Beth couldn’t determine who sent the death messages but was able to identify the domain server from which they were sent. She printed out the messages and went to the company where the computers were kept.
“My name is Detective Beth Johansson. Someone was sending death threats to an assistant district attorney and she was just found murdered. Can you find out who sent these messages?”
“Sorry detective. These were sent through our server from another server; this IP address isn’t even in the United States. I think this one is in South America.”
“How did they use your server to deliver the emails?”
“Hacking detective. Even we get attacked. But I’ll follow up to see how far we can trace this.”
Beth handed him her card, just as Joe was coming in to join her. “Let me know if you find anything.”
“Hey Joe. The death threats were not sent by anyone who has an account on this server. It was passed through here from another country.”
“Not surprising. No one doing this would want to be identified. So it’s someone with tech skills.”
“Yes. Any word from forensics?”
“No prints. DNA testing will take another day. Let’s look at the cases Abby Palmer was prosecuting.”
Joe and Beth went to the district attorney’s office. They met with one of Palmer’s colleagues, Larry Jessup.
“Mr. Jessup, I’m Detective Rossi. This is my partner Detective Johansson. We’re investigating the murder of Abby Palmer. Can you tell us who she was investigating?”
“Sure detective. I anticipated your visit. Here is a list of cases Abby was working on, with legal briefs and details. I would look at the mob cases first.”
“Thank you Mr. Jessup. Anyone in particular?”
“The Langone Construction Company was strong-arming competitors to drop out of bidding on the new basketball arena.”
“Very good. We’ll return these copies for your files after we scan them.”
“No rush, just realize these are confidential documents. Either return them or destroy them.”
“Beth. Run down everything you can find on Langone Construction. See if we have any informants with contacts there.”
“Will do Joe. Or should I just wait for tomorrow’s dream report?”
Beth researched the company. Several of the managers had criminal backgrounds. The owner, Ronald Langone, was indicted but never convicted of racketeering. But in mob cases that wasn’t unusual. The boss never gets too close to the crime. One name stuck out, Vito Carlese. He was acquitted of murder in 2011, on a technicality. Beth decided to seek a judge’s warrant to search Carlese’s records and computer, but decided to wait until she met Joe tomorrow.
“Good morning Beth.”
“I’m going to think of a name” as she closed her eyes and put her hand to her forehead. “What do you think?”
Joe played along. “I’m seeing an Italian person, five foot eight inches tall, name is Vito.”
“OMG Joe. Vito Carlese. Are you messing with me?”
“No. That’s the dream I had. What made you think of him?”
“He was acquitted of murder in 2011, but most figured he did it. Did you background him?”
“No, I was going to wait for your report.”
“Warrant for his computer?”
“Go ahead. You did the work.”
“Maybe we should just wait a week to get all the clues.” Beth laughs.
“One doesn’t want to get too cocky Beth. You never know when these visions will stop.”
Joe gets a text message. “Beth, the lab has some DNA info back. Let’s go.”
“If it’s Vito Carlese, I’m going to ask you for lottery picks.”
Sure enough, the lab tech gave Joe and Beth the news.
“There was a trace amount of blood mixed in with Abby Palmer. It came back to Vito Carlese, who was in our criminal database from a trial in 2011.” They smiled.
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“We had a feeling. Thanks. Place that in the evidence file and lock it up. Send us the report and copy it to the district attorney’s office.”
“Will do detectives. Good luck.”
“I’ll get the warrant Joe. Judge Robinson is a friend of mine.”
“How good a friend?”
“Joe. He’s married.”
“I didn’t mean to imply.”
“And old enough to be my father; although his son David is a doctor at San Francisco General.”
“All right, now I understand.”
While Beth did research on Vito Carlese and his associates, Joe talked to the San Francisco gang task force. They added names and pictures of connected individuals on the white board. A new connection became apparent. Vito Carlese is related to a councilman on the San Francisco Utilities Commission, Robert Bonomo; it was only a third cousin so no one saw it at first.
“Beth, Robert Bonomo is influential in awarding the contract for the new basketball arena. Abby Palmer was investigating corruption in the arena bidding process. Now Palmer is killed by a cousin of a politician reviewing the contract.”
“Joe, we need to get a warrant to look into Robert Bonomo’s finances.”
“Yes, that may be the key to solving this murder.”
“Back to Judge Robinson.”
“Yes. Meanwhile, we’ll set up surveillance on Bonomo. By tomorrow, we should be able to get his phone records.”
In his dream that night, Joe saw someone pointing a gun at his partner Beth. She was hit in the back. Then an ambulance took her away. He saw Beth on the operating table. Then he woke up. From a temporary panic to a relative calm, Joe called Beth.
“Beth, are you there?”
“Joe, it’s 3:00am. What’s wrong?”
“Are you home?”
“Yes. I was asleep until a minute ago. I had a bad dream.”
“What happened in the dream?”
“Someone shot me.”
“Beth, I just had the same dream. You were taken to the hospital and undergoing surgery.”
“Sorry Joe. In my dream, I died in the street.”
Joe did not respond.
“Joe, are you there?”
“Yes Beth. I just didn’t know how to react. I can’t imagine anything happening to you.”
“Well, it was only a dream. It’s not real.”
“Beth, my dreams have some connection to reality.”
“I think it’s just our unconscious pushing out a fear we both have.”
“Maybe. But you don’t leave my side from now on.”
“That’s sweet Joe. A little 1950s, but sweet.”
“I was born in the 80s, just like you Beth. My father was 1950s.”
Beth smiled. “I still think it’s cute.”
The next day, Beth and Joe served a search warrant on Robert Bonomo’s home, to search his computer. They had already received his phone records.
“Mr. Bonomo. My name is Detective Rossi and this is my partner Detective Johansson. We have a warrant to search your home and computer.”
“Conspiracy to murder district attorney Abby Palmer.”
Bonomo started to tense up. “Why would I have anything to do with that? I don’t even know her.”
“I’m sure your lawyer can fill you in.” Joe and Beth searched for any records that might be relevant. The forensic tech packed up Bonomo’s computer. After about an hour, they left. Bonomo was on the phone with his lawyer.
“See you in court.”
As they got back to their car, Joe chided Beth. “Getting a little cocky dear?”
“Sorry Joe. The thought of killing Abby Palmer just gets me so angry. I’d love to put away Bonomo and anyone else involved.”
“Let’s wait for the verdict to celebrate.”
“I can’t wait to go through his computer and records. I’ll find something to connect him to the murder.”
“I know you will Beth.”
“Yes Joe. Most crimes leave tech clues, like fingerprints leading back to the guilty. How did we ever solve crimes before?”
“Fingerprints, DNA, technology. What’s next?”
“I don’t know Joe. Maybe we can put a chip in every criminal to track their locations, or base it on their retina?”
“I think that might be pushing the constitution a bit.”
“I don’t know. Once someone has been convicted, they forfeit some rights. Imagine if we had a database of all criminals based on their retina scan and could access them anywhere in the world.”
“Beth, I think that would be the ultimate invasion of privacy.”
“I would trade some privacy for safety Joe.”
The next day, Beth had found financial files and messages connecting Bonomo with Vito Carlese, in particular a payoff from Bonomo to Carlese.
Another case solved for the dream detectives.
Joe went to bed that night worried about the dream where Beth was shot. Although it seemed to be a false signal, he had no control over the dreams or their consequences. It wasn’t long before he was shaken out of his bed, literally. It’s San Francisco, and a 5.2 magnitude earthquake flipped Joe onto his bedroom floor. Joe immediately called Beth.
“Are you all right Beth?”
Beth answered, half asleep. “Joe, yes. I guess so. What time is it?”
“Half past five. Why?”
“Are you reading the time from your CPAP machine?”
“Joe, it’s only 4:00am. Your machine clock is 90 minutes fast. There was no earthquake. But I think there might be one at 5:30.”
“What do you mean Beth?”
“Didn’t you say your CPAP is connected to the Internet?”
“Joe, I think you’ve been hacked.”
“OMG! That means…”
“Yes, it means that someone is controlling your dreams.”
“What about the earthquake?”
“I’ll tell you at 5:30. I’m more concerned that we both had a dream about me being shot.”
Neither Joe nor Beth could get back to sleep, so they got ready for work and met in the diner between their homes. 5:30am came and went. No earthquake.
“Beth, why do you think we both had the same dream..about you being shot? And why did you die in your dream, but not in mine?”
Beth held Joe’s hand. “If someone really planted that dream through your CPAP machine, I’m glad you didn’t see me die. But how did I sense it? Are we experiencing something metaphysical? Am I that close to you?”
“Beth, do you plug your iPhone next to your bed while sleeping?”
“If someone could hack my CPAP machine, couldn’t they have sent the bad dream to you through your phone?”
“Joe, that’s pretty out there, even for 2018.”
“But not impossible. Tonight, leave your phone at the precinct and see if your dream matches mine tomorrow.”
On her way home that night, a robber hit Beth over the head and took her phone. Beth managed to get home and went to sleep early.
Joe woke up again at 4:00am, this time with the same dream that Beth was shot, only this time being killed. He quickly called Beth.
“Hello.” Joe heard a gunshot.
“Beth, Beth, answer me.”
The robber was found dead in an alley the next day.
Tamara Nicole Canty has been creating stories since she was in rompers, and still continues today. She finds her home and solace in the bosom of her characters’ worlds, and if she had her choice she would stay in one of those worlds rather than the mundane, colorless, and realistic world around her. While she enjoys writing novels, her heart is also with her screenplays and her poems. She resides in Riegelwood, North Carolina with her widowed father and young sister.
The Woman in the Golden Cage
When I squinted over at the clock it was 3:00 A.M., the knocking didn’t stop until I shouted.
I got up from my bed, leaving a pool of sweat behind and I opened the door. But the delivery person had gone, leaving a giant box right at my doorstep. What courier service could possibly be working at this hour? And how could they just leave without helping me get this giant box inside? After much exerting effort I finally got it inside, and closed the door behind me. I had to go and retrieve a towel from my bedroom, so that I could towel off all the sweat. Sure, my trainer kicked my butt every week, but he had nothing on the box. I hung the towel around my neck, and just stared at the thing for awhile with my arms crossed.
A sudden uneasiness gripped me when I realized that, once the thing was opened there was no going back. It was funny how opening a huge cardboard box, could possibly change the trajectory of my entire life. But here I was walking toward it, anxious to see what was inside. I didn’t waste another minute tearing the tape from the seams and when I had stole a peek inside, my blood froze cold because, my eyes refused to move from the golden bars of a cage. Instead of stopping I tore into the box like a wild man and when I had finished, there she was the beauty with the smoldering eyes that haunted my dreams.
I knew that my mouth was opened because, I could feel the air going in and out, but I just couldn’t close it. I mean, here she was looking right at me with a smile on her lips. I had to be still dreaming. And when she spoke her first words to me, they seemed to weave around my heart.
“Only you can set me free, Sire.”
Her words were completely insane, there was no doubt about that, but how she made them sound so sensual I would never know. Maybe it was her accent.
“You have the wrong man.” I was finally able to muster when my mouth started working again.
“No, Great King, you are the one that I seek.”
Gosh. I had to shut my eyes and grit my teeth against her exotic beauty. It would be so easy to take advantage at a time like this and that’s the last thing I wanted to do.
“You have the wrong man,” I was far more insistent this time when I repeated myself.
“Come to me, my king, and I will prove to you that I am right,” her words were a tender plea.
What could I do, but approach her? She was a damsel in distress and I always did have a nagging knight in shining armor complex. But when she let her soft caramel colored hand caress my cheek, I saw many wondrous things, things that could not be of this world. And when she removed her hand, I could barely breathe.
“What was that?”
“Your home, my lord.”
She let her fingers linger about my cheek. Suddenly, I felt the electric connection between us. Who was she to me? I had to know.
“If that was my home, then who are we to each other?”
She lowered her eyes from mine, as her smile melted to sadness.
“I am your Queen, my lord. So, you have forgotten me?”
I could feel her breaking heart and it cut me.
“Not completely,” I brought her eyes back up to mine. “You haunt my dreams, Lady,” I admitted.
This made her smile.
“Tell me how to release you.”
“A joining of our lips will set us both free.”
And when my lips fell softly on hers, I was able to open the golden cage’s door and with the opening of that door came the opening of my mind.
Jordan Danielle attends Full Sail University and will graduate in 2021 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Entertainment. Jordan’s latest novel, Watched, was published in January 2019. She has also written and directed several live productions. Jordan enjoys teaching Latin to high school students and listening to 1940s Big Band records. She lives in Washington State.
Christine jumped at the sound. There was no reason for the doorbell to ring. The neighbors had given up on trying to deliver welcome wishes and cookies months ago. The magazine sales-people and missionaries had learned to change their route. Mailmen, girl scouts, and dog walkers alike knew that no answer would come from the little, blue house. So, why was it ringing, now?
Christine tiptoed through the hallway. Leaning over the washing machine, she pushed aside the box of diapers and retrieved her slim pistol.
After peering through her thick curtains at the street, the sidewalk, and the backdoor, the only proof of the visitor was a small, cardboard box on the front porch. But that box was far more terrifying than any visitor. For that box was addressed to a dead woman: Jamie Nicholson.
Christine opened the door as little as she could, quickly snatched the box from her porch, dead bolted and chained the door, and hurried it into the kitchen. Jamie Nicholson. It wasn’t possible. She practically dropped the box on the island, as if the package could hurt her. The bruises had only just begun to heal. Even though the cuts had become scars, she could feel them sting at the sight of the name she left behind.
She knew that handwriting. It had been on her car lease, in her checkbook, and on her wedding certificate. That handwriting was on the paperwork filled out each time she went to the ER. It invented a different excuse each time. She fell down the stairs. The pan was too hot. Her bike crashed. Christine’s eyes fluttered from the label to the windows and doors. How had he found her?
Something must have gone wrong. Maybe the funeral wasn’t convincing enough. Maybe the police made themselves too obvious. Maybe her husband had found the pregnancy test she had tried so hard to hide. Whatever it was, something went awry.
Her breath shuddered with every heartbeat as she ducked beneath the counter. Pushing aside the baby formula and stacks of Tupperware, she grabbed hold of the burner phone. Her hands were shaking so hard she could barely type the letters. Help.
It wouldn’t be enough. Her husband would stop at nothing to find her. He would only play his mind games so long before he broke in. This package was just the appetizer. He’d wait until dark, then strike.
Closing the phone seemed to signal her daughter, and her cries filled the small home. Christine tiptoed into the pastel nursery, onto the plush rug, and scooped up her crying baby girl. She slowly swayed back and forth in the light pink rocking chair and tried to hum a lullaby. Soon, the girl's tears melted into sleep, but not for the mother.
For Christine, the night had only begun. She retrieved her pistol and kept guard in the hallway. She knew only one thing for sure. No matter what, no one was going to hurt her daughter. Dusk quickly turned to night. Soon, only the slivers of moonlight that snuck between the curtains lit the small, blue house.
She had often thought about this night. No matter how many promises the police made, she knew she wasn’t safe. He would find her, but he would never touch her, again. Her pistol switched hands as Christine wiped her sweaty palm on her jeans. Never.
Christine’s courage shattered with her window. The wind furled the curtains as moonlight illuminated the trail of glass through her kitchen. Quickly, she ducked into the laundry room and pressed her back against the wall. But then she heard it. A sound far more terrifying than shattering glass: the sound of glass being crushed underfoot, ringing out like boots on fresh snow.
The crackling turned to creaking, only a few glass shards hanging on as he made his way into the dining room. Each creak seemed to race up Christine’s spine, arms, and legs, forcing her to the floor. Her fingernails tried to break through her palm as she attempted to keep her pistol from shaking.
Christine quickly muffled her own scream.
“Jamie, I know you are in here,” he taunted, each footstep nearing closer. “C’mon, it’s not like you are going to fight m—”
He screeched to a stop just outside the laundry room. Christine froze.
He was cut off by a baby’s cry.
That cry flipped a switch within Christine, as she rose up from the ground. Without hesitation, she pulled the trigger. Christine could still see the shock on his face as he fell to the floor.
He had it all backward.
Her scars were not a sign of weakness.
They only showed her strength.
“Third farm this week.” He said.
His assistant stood behind him writing down any information that could be useful.
“Do you think there are more creatures like the one that old farmer shot?” His assistant asked.
Thomas stood and turned. He walked past the boy to his car to grab his walkie. He radioed for any other cops to come to his location, telling them the situation. As he walked back to the corpse, he patted the boy on the shoulder.
“Don’t be a fool. There is no such thing as a mystery creature. Someone knows what it is, we just have to find them.” He said.
The cops arrived. They spread out around the dead cow. Mary tapped Thomas on the shoulder, holding out her hands.
“It’s a tooth, sir, and it doesn’t belong to the cow.” She said.
Thomas held it, before he placed it into a plastic bag. He handed the bag to Mary, walked to the Captain who just pulled up, and shook his hand.
“What’s going on, Detective? You’ve taken my cops from the streets to come out here in the ass end of nowhere.” The Captain said.
“Another animal, sir. Marcus Locus called it in. He was driving by the area when he saw it by the road.” Thomas said.
The Captain rubbed his nose. He walked towards the scene with Thomas hot on his heels. The Captain took out a handkerchief and plugged his nose.
“What in the name of God is doing this to these animals? It didn’t even eat the cow, it just maimed it.” The Captain said.
He turned to Thomas’s assistant and held out his hand. The assistant struggled to get the folder that the Captain was waiting for. The Captain slapped the folder shut and turned away from the cow. He made no noise, only walked back to his car. Thomas followed him, until the Captain turned, causing Thomas to jump back.
“I want every person on this case. I want to know what that thing is. You’re in charge of this case now, Thomas, don’t let me down.” The Captain said.
He got into his car and pulled out onto the road. Mary was standing behind Thomas when he turned around. Her fingers clenched the folder she held out.
“What is this?” He asked.
“I’ve been doing research, sir, and I think I’ve find something interesting about the creatures that kill the farm animals.” She said.
“Creatures?” He said.
Mary reached into her pocket and opened a small book she took out.
“Yes, sir, I believe there are more creatures out there. Look, these patterns are across the state not just here. I think there is a pack of them, maybe more hiding somewhere.” She said.
Thomas rubbed his forehead. He closed the book, put it back into her hand and took out a cigarette. Slipping the lighter back into pants, he moved past her.
“That’s nice, Mary, but we still need to know what the hell the damn things are.” He said.
Charity Stephens is a versatile content creator, writing everything from screenplays to short fiction and even poetry. Her whole life, she’s always strived to find the beauty in everything, even the tragic parts. Due to this, her specialty tends to be in dramatic yet realistic situations that unfortunately occur to numerous victims. Her focus is to create content for episodic television for the future generations to come as an escape from their own reality while also informing of other tragic situations.
She is currently enrolled at Full Sail University, graduating with a Creative Writing BFA degree in 2021.
Her work has appeared in Futures: 2018 Poetry Collection and she has multiple pending publications.
Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @ChxrityStephens
“Who?” I asked. Gosh this kid is morbid.
“Our mom,” he replied. “I thought I’d save your breath having you ask yourself.”
I glance at the boy. There’s a lack of emotion in his voice as he stares out the window. I look forward and pretend to not be uncomfortable. If that little girl weren’t here, I would’ve just kept driving.
“Gonna pay your respects?” I ask.
“Something like that.”
“Where’s your father?”
“Probably off somewhere getting shit-faced..”
Definitely should’ve kept driving.
“Well I’m sorry for your loss.” I say, awkwardly. “You shouldn’t be out here all by yourselves, especially hitchhiking. It’s dangerous.”
“We were just exhausted from walking everywhere, besides I’m 18. I can take care of the both of us.”
“A kid shouldn’t be taking care of a kid.”
“I’m not a kid.”
I check my GPS for the hundredth time, wishing time would pass quicker. “We’re about 15 minutes away.”
He turns his head to the backseat where the sleeping girl is. Looking in my rear-view mirror, I see him caress the discoloration on her cheek with his thumb, causing her eyes to slowly flutter open.
“Wakey wakey, Sarah,” the boy says to her.
That’s the first name I’ve heard this whole trip. He picks her up and pulls her onto his lap, kissing her on the forehead. Seeing her more up close, I notice more marks on her face. I try to focus my thoughts elsewhere and look at the pink and orange sky. After dropping these two off, it’s straight to another rest stop. I feel a sudden emptiness on my head. When I glance over, I see the little girl attempting to fit my cap on her tiny head.
“Where are your kids?” She asks, tugging on my jacket. “Do you have a lady friend? Or any friends?”
“Do you always ask a stranger this many questions?” I yank my cap off her head.
“Do you always give strangers a ride in your car?”
“Sarah, hush,” the boy said.
Sarah pouted and stood quiet. I noticed her constantly stealing glances at me and I sighed.
“No kids. No lady friend. No friends at all. Just me.” I tell her.
She stares at me for a bit before answering. “Why?”
“It’s easier that way.”
“I don’t wanna have to worry about anyone else.”
“Sarah, hush,” the boy says again.
She stays quiet.
“I’ll tell you what,” I say to the boy. “you tell me about your situation and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know about me.”
The boy rolls his eyes. “And who says I want to know anything about you?”
“I do,” Sarah tells him.
“Your name would be nice,” I add.
He looks out the window, probably hoping to get there soon so he won’t have to deal with me. He looks back at me and begins to speak.
“My name, if you must know, is Matthew. We’re going to the cemetery to see our mom because it’s been a year since she died and I promised Sarah we’d go. Is that enough info for you?”
“What happened to her face?”
Matthew looks down at his lap. Sarah looks at him then back to me.
“Our daddy gets mad.”
I look at Matthew, but he avoids eye contact. I try my best to ignore the pit in my stomach. “Well, you can call me Mike,” I say to her. “I’ve been living on the road for about 20 years now. I don’t have friends and I don’t keep in touch with my family because of some drama I won’t get into right now.”
“Oh c’mon,” Matthew interrupted.
“Fine.” I stay silent for a second before continuing. “I’m the product of an affair my mother had. After knowing the truth, my father and sister treated me like something you scrape off your shoe. As soon as I turned 18, I got the hell out and never looked back.”
Matthew had an unreadable expression on his face while Sarah just looked confused.
“What’s an affair?” she asked.
“We’re here,” I say pulling into the cemetery.
As soon as I park, they hop out the car. Against my better judgment, I decide to follow. I feel the blood rush to my face as the chilly air hits me. Matthew notices me and stops walking.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
I continue to walk, ignoring him, and Sarah follows. She grabs my arm and tugs in the direction she wants to go. Not too long after, she stops and kneels down. Matthew kneels beside her and holds her hand. They both stay silent as I walk a little closer. I look at what’s engraved in the tombstone and I become frozen, partially due to the cold and partially from seeing my sister’s name.
“I wish we had flowers,” Sarah said.
I kneel beside her and grab her other hand, icy to the touch. “Trust me, she wouldn’t have cared about some flowers.”
“How would you know?” Matthew asks.
I stay silent. A half hour passes before we get off the ground. Matthew holds onto Sarah, who’s obviously freezing.
“Thanks for taking us, Mike,” he says to me. “I guess this is goodbye.”
I look at the darkening sky. “Well, I was gonna grab something to eat. I wouldn’t mind some company. Then I can take you back home or wherever you wanna go. Hell, you can even stay with me for a bit if you want. I mean, what else are you guys planning on doing?”
Matthew almost objects before receiving a harsh look from Sarah. He sighs. “I guess that’d be alright.”
Sarah’s face lights up.
“I thought you said you don’t wanna have to worry about anyone else?” Matthew speaks again.
I start walking back to the car, both of them following, before answering.
James Wright lives in Malibu California. He is a veterinarian and received two degrees from Cornell University. He has two grown children, Heather and Jim that reside in California. Writing, gourmet cooking and sailing are his passions. He is presently putting the finishing touches on his first novel, "A Horse to Kill For".
Her filly suddenly burst through the fog, grey- on- grey like a thundering shadow. The ground reverberated under her feet as the horse swept by at a full gallop. Heather clicked the stop-watch and squinted at its face. She let out a low whistle, ducked under the rail and ran toward the horse and rider. Grey Fire pranced and snorted. With her head and tail held high, she circled back toward Heather.
“She is quick! “ Heather panted. “I think we have a chance.”
The filly had a legitimate shot, to win the San Lucia Derby next month and Heather held on to that glimmer of hope, wishing that her run of bad luck was coming to an end. Three months ago her horse training husband had split to parts unknown. Heather was not surprised by his departure. Their marriage had been rocky from the start. His love affair with the bottle had become stronger with each passing year. When their daughter was diagnosed with cancer he really fell apart. Heather remembered the night. He just walked out the door with a gin bottle clasped in his right hand. He staggered into their rusted Toyota sedan, turned the key and the engine coughed and sputtered to life. As the car left the driveway, a cloud of blue smoke billowed from the exhaust. He yelled out the window something undecipherable. Heather pulled the front screen door open and watched the plume disappear into the night At that moment; she knew that he would be gone forever.
Since that fateful night, Heather had been religiously taking Annie to the hospital for her chemotherapy and appointments. After months of treatment, the doctors were cautiously optimistic about the leukemia’s remission. Her stack of unpaid medical bills grew taller and taller. A win with her grey filly would be the answer to her prayers.
Heather glanced at her watch. She would be a little late to Annie’s appointment even if the early morning traffic was light. The morning sun peeped through the clouds and she flipped on her sunglasses and trotted towards the back stables. The small aluminum trailer leaned slightly to the left giving the appearance it might topple at any moment. She carefully pried open the flimsy screen door lest she pull it off its last hinge. The early morning light gently illuminated her daughters’ angelic face as she slept peacefully on the sofa.
“Annie, Annie, wake up, you’ll be late for your appointment.”
The sofa creaked and the child folded a quilt, embroidered with a pattern of running thoroughbreds, away from her face.
“Hi Mom, I’m awake.” Annie murmured and rubbed her eyes.
“I’ve been waiting for you. How did ‘Grey Fire’ do?”
“Great. She did five furlongs in her fastest time ever!”
Heather gathered her daughter’s backpack.
“Now let’s get going. Get dressed and brush your hair and teeth.”
Annie rolled out of the sofa and trudged slowly toward the bathroom. She turned to her Mom.
“Do we have to go? I’m tired of being hurt and poked with needles.”
Heather gently touched her shoulder.
“I know this sucks. If I could do it differently I would, but we have no choice. We have to do what the doctors tell us. Now, please go get ready.”
After the appointment, Heather carried her gently sobbing child back to the truck.
With a forced a note of gaiety in her voice she said,
“Hey, how about we stop for an ice-cream?”
Annie rubbed her bruised arm where they had taken the blood sample and quietly nodded and smiled.
Traffic slowed to a halt. Heather turned on the heater and felt an overwhelming desire just to let go and bawl her eyes out. Her daughter had gone through total body radiation treatment and a subsequent bone marrow transplant, not to mention, countless visits to the hospital and her pediatrician. It had been a long and trying ordeal, and not without collateral damage to the entire family. With the back of her hand, Heather quickly brushed a tear away and mentally focused on the good news. The doctors were still hopeful that Annie was in remission and this last battery of blood tests would confirm their prognosis.
Heather downshifted and turned into the back entrance of the race track; her truck rattled in protest. The rain streaked windshield blurred her vision and a white truck suddenly appeared, stopped directly in front of her. She slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt inches from its back bumper. Feeling even more drained and exhausted, she slowly climbed out of the truck. She walked over to the driver’s side of the vehicle and wearily said,
“Why, for God’s sake are you parked in the middle of the road?”
A large man with wavy black hair and steel grey eyes took up much of the space behind the steering-wheel; a crumpled map lay open on the dash board.
“I’m sorry…I’m Dr. White, the new researcher and I’m looking for the university horses.”
“The university horses?”
“That’s right. The university has contracted with the track to stable a few horses here for a study that we are doing and they are supposed to be stabled in barn D.”
“Oh, those horses. Why don’t you park over there …out of the middle of the road?” Despite her being dog tired she heard herself sarcastically say.
“I’ll be right back. It will be easier for me to show you than having you wander around the barns all afternoon.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to bother you.”
“No bother at all, I’ll be back in a second.”
Heather climbed back into the cab of her truck and said to Annie,
“I’m going to drop you off at home and show this guy where those experimental horses are, it will only take me a few minutes.”
Annie nodded her head.
Heather parked the truck at the trailer and quickly got Annie settled. As she jogged back to the waiting professor, she ran her fingers through her blonde hair and silently cursed herself for not washing it this morning.
Dr. White rolled down the window and peered over the top of his gold-rimmed glasses.
“That was quick. Hop in.”
“Actually, it is quicker if we walk.”
He stuffed some papers in his briefcase and got out of the car. Heather led them down a narrow mud-slick path toward an old grey wooden structure with a cupola on top of the roof. A small rust pocked weather vane, the silhouette of a race horse, teetered precariously unbalanced at the pinnacle of the cupola. One big gust and it would lose function as well as form.
Heather turned to the big man following her and said,
“We’re almost there. It’s the building straight ahead. I haven’t been by here in a while. It looks like they have made some improvements.”
New doors stood in startling contrast with the rest of the building. Recently installed and made of stainless steel, they possessed a startling array of brass bolts and locks.
“Wow, looks like your university is a little security conscious. What are you actually doing here?”
Dr. White fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a large key ring with multiple keys dangling from the loop. He turned to Heather.
“The research is really quite benign but, so-called ‘animal-activists’ have become more militant and can seriously disrupt years of work. Because of those misguided souls, we have had to beef up our security measures, thus the reason for the heavy doors and multiple locks.”
After punching in a code at the doors’ keypad and unlocking three secured padlocks, the doors swung quietly inward.
Heather squinted from the bright fluorescent lights that illuminated the laboratory. The glare off of the stainless steel tables and white tile walls further magnified their intensity. From somewhere in the back of the building she heard a horse whinny. A door in the rear of the lab opened and a slight statured, balding man, with a fringe of grey hair entered the room. He wore dark green coveralls with the university seal emblazoned on the chest pocket.
He boomed, in a deep voice that did not match his size.
“Welcome, I’ve been expecting you. Did you bring your notes from your prior research?”
“Yes I did they are right here in my briefcase.”
“Excellent and is this young lady your technician?”
“As a matter of fact she is.”
Heather raised her right eyebrow and quickly looked at Dr. White. She offered the old professor her hand and he shook it with exuberance.
“Now, let’s go look at our patients.”
The door in the back of the lab led to a dimly lit stable. The smell of alfalfa hay, horse sweat and the metallic odor of blood permeated the still air. When Heather’s eyes re-adjusted to the low wattage bulbs in the barn, she saw five thoroughbred horses standing quietly. Their eyes were half-closed with heads and necks arched lazily toward the floor. From the right jugular vein of each animal ran a clear plastic tube to a glass gallon jug. Coursing through the tubes and dripping slowly into the containers ran the ruby-red blood of the horses. So as not to startle the drugged horses Dr. White whispered to Heather.
“We have been working on ‘blood –packing’ horses to see if by increasing their red blood cell hematocrit or “packed cell volume”, they will have more endurance in the longer stakes races. Technically, it’s fairly easy. Under sterile conditions, we slowly take four quarts of blood from the horse one month prior to the race. We then inject the horses with an experimental drug that stimulates their own red cell production. Finally, one week before the race we transfuse their own blood back into the horse.”
He took a breath and continued,
Theoretically, that will increase their hematocrit and oxygen carrying capacity of their body. Simple enough?”
Heather answered hesitantly,
“Hmm, but have you put your theory into practice?”
“Only with ponies, not real race horses. That’s why we are here.”
“Well thanks for the tour, but I’ve got to go.”
“Wait before you leave would you like to meet for a drink this evening?”
Heather paused and thought for a moment. What the hell. A drink with this rather handsome man would be a welcome break.
She reached into her jeans pocket and scribbled her number on a scrap of paper.
The after-work crowd filled the local hangout. Pictures of past race triumphs graced the old mahogany walls and racing paraphernalia hung from the ceiling. Heather wedged her way through the sea of humanity that surrounded the bar. She acknowledged a few of her colleagues with congenial hellos and an occasional hug. She scanned the room and spotted Dr. White sitting alone at a small table in the far corner. Simultaneously, he stood up and gave her a quick wave. He pulled out a chair for her and said,
“It’s a little quieter back here. I’m glad you could make it.”
“I don‘t get out much, but when I do, I like to come here, it’s close to home and friendly.”
Heather flipped her blonde hair back off her shoulders and sat down. Despite her worries and the fact that the jeans she wore felt a little too snug, she relaxed. With a wry smile she said,
“Well, how about that drink you promised me Dr. White?”
“Of course, but you’ll have to call me Geoff.”
“It’s a deal. I think I’ll have a martini up with a twist.”
The drinks came quickly and they both took generous sips. Heather looked down and slowly twirled her glass.
“So Geoff, about this “blood packing” thing. I understand that it is all natural and no drugs are involved and theoretically it would be an advantage to a race horse in the longer distance races. Are there any down side risks?”
He took a drink and their eyes met.
“Like I mentioned before we have never tried this on performance horses and I wouldn’t think that the racing association would be real happy if this practice became commonplace. The only risk that I can imagine would be some sort of arterial rupture due to the increased volume of blood and thus higher blood pressure.”
Heather lowered her gaze and leaned forward.
“I really need my horse to win the Stakes Derby next month but, I don’t want to risk her life.”
“Life is a risk. I would be willing to help you out…just for the sake of science mind you. You will have to make a decision ASAP. We need a full four weeks.”
She sighed and propped her chin on her hand.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures. We’ll start tomorrow.”
“O.K. remember, there is no guarantee.”
Days sped to weeks and the required procedures were performed on Grey Fire. The filly improved both in speed and stamina. Heather and Dr. White spent long hours together at the track. As the big day approached, even a casual observer could tell that their relationship had become more than just business.
Derby day dawned crisp and clear. San Lucia Race Track never looked better. Blue and white striped tents covered the grass infield. On the top of the grandstand, flags of all colors fluttered gaily in the breeze. The full capacity crowd chatted noisily as they watched the parade of horses. Women in huge straw hats and flowery dresses punctuated the crowd. Groups of men gathered and poured over the daily racing form.
A trumpet blared forth the familiar call to the starting gates. Heather pushed her way through the crowd. She ducked, scooted here and there, weaving like a running back trying to avoid tacklers. Finally, she arrived at the rail.
A hush fell over the track. The main race was about to begin. One by one the horses entered the starting gates, all tense and glistening with the sweat of anticipation. A bell rang and the gates clashed open. The horses rocketed forward and the crowd surged toward the rail. Heather tripped, lost her footing and stumbled to the ground. With the help of a neighboring spectator she clambered to an upright position. The horses were already a half mile into the race as she grabbed for her binoculars and focused on the near turn. Grey Fire ran easily in third place. The jockeys, with their whips flying, urged the horses around the far turn into the home stretch.
As the horses neared the finish line Heather heard the excited announcer over the loudspeakers.
“Grey Fire on the outside! Grey Fire passing Pea Vine! Grey Fire! Grey Fire! The Winner!”
The post race party was winding down and the last stragglers were leaving the tent. Dusk had settled over the track and Heather looked up at Geoff and gently kissed his lips. She was rich and happy. She sighed and whispered in his ear.
“Thanks for everything. Are you free tomorrow for dinner?”
Geoff gave her a long hug and said.
A beep from Heather’s cell phone interrupted their conversation. The barn number appeared on the screen. The groom’s urgent voice sounded on the other end of the line.
“Come to the barn! Something horrible has happened to Grey Fire and the track vet is here!”
Seconds later Heather arrived at her horses’ stall and flung open the double door.
The track veterinarian and groom knelt next to the still grey horse. Bloody froth like a strawberry milkshake leaked from her nostrils. She lay on her right side and her left eye gazed fixed and unseeing at the ceiling. Heather let out a gasp and fell to her knees next to the lifeless form. The attending vet put his arms around Heather’s shoulders.
“I’m sorry, it all happened so quickly there was nothing that we could do. I would guess that she must have had a weakness in her pulmonary artery and it ruptured into her lungs.”
Feeling nothing but a numb emptiness, Heather walked slowly back to her trailer. She opened the cupboard above the sink and reached in the back and pulled out a bottle of gin; a legacy from her husband. Her daughter, Annie, thankfully was away visiting her grandma. She poured the warm gin into a plastic cup and took a gulp. The liquor burned her throat. No amount of alcohol would be an anodyne for the pain she felt yet, she poured herself another. She shut off the lights and slumped back onto the old sofa. A faint smell of Annie wafted from the comforter and she pulled the tattered edge up to her neck. She took another drink and for the first time noticed the blinking red light of her answering machine. Compelled, slowly focusing through her haze, she punched the button.
The recorded voice of Annie’s pediatrician jolted her back to the present.
“I’ve got great news. Annie’s hematocrit and white blood cell count are all normal. I feel that she is in total remission and should live a long and happy life. Call me in the morning.”
Heather lay back down on the couch and buried her head in the pillow trying to shut out any noise. A glimmer of light peaked through the window, hinting at the beginning of a new day. Now, in the stillness of the early dawn, she clamped the pillow harder over her ears. But try as she might, she could not stifle the distant sound of the rumble of heavy machinery beginning their work.
My musings were cut short as my companion-a Cheyenne/Crow half breed named Monaco-laid a shot of whisky in front of me.
“Drink up, it’s your turn next,” he said, prompting me to down the shot.
“Agh, burns like hell. What’s in this?” I asked, scrunching my face.
“I do not know. Let us hope there are no snakeheads or horse droppings in it. Get ready,” he said.
Sure enough, the knife was passed my way. The other occupant of our table had just went seven rounds before stabbing himself.
“To clarify, I have to go seven or more times around before I win the pot. Is that right?” I asked.
“That’s right. If you win, you get the 20. If you lose, I get it,” said the man.
“Alright, let’s do this,” I said, focusing on my open hand as it laid face down on the table. I picked up my old Bowie knife and started to stab the spaces between my fingers, starting with the space below my thumb before going to the space between my thumb and index, going back to the space behind my thumb and proceeding to the space between the index and the middle finger, repeating this process until I reached my pinky, restarting the process.
I did this six more times, almost stabbing myself twice before I reached my eighth round. By this time, the methodical sound of the knife sinking into the table had drawn a small crowd. “Eight!” I announced, sinking the knife into the table deep enough for it to stand on its own, the reflection of the afternoon sun causing it to glint a deep yellow. The man across from me let out a sigh before pushing the money to me. I grabbed it and offered my hand for a handshake. “Thank you, sir. I realized I never got your name,” I said.
“I’m Victor. Victor Bell. What’s yours, if you don’t mind me asking?” he said.
“The name’s Finnegan. Finnegan Wade,” I replied.
“Well, Finnegan, what would you say to another round?”
“I’m good. I needed this money to eat tonight before my friend and I head out tomorrow. We’re headed down to Texas for the winter to see my ma, maybe find some work to help her out down there.”
“We wouldn’t be playing for money this time. Well, you wouldn’t. I ‘acquired’ these from a man over in Nevada,” he said, revealing a deck of risqué cards. “If you win, you get this deck. If I win, I get the 20 back. What do you say?”
“Finn, we need the money.We haven’t eaten well in days. Say no,” whispered Monaco.
“Yeah, but we can sell those cards for a dollar each. How many dirty cards have you seen in your days? The cowboys we run across, especially the ones in their prime would be easy prey when selling these,” I said, a glint of greed in my eye. “Besides, the one with the velvet bodysuit that looks kinda mean I’ll keep. So we’re not in this entirely for the money.”
“Whatever. Just don’t come complaining to me when your stomach feels like it’s eating itself,” said Monaco.
I looked at Victor, “I’m game,” I said.“So,what’s the catch?”
Victor smirked at me before saying, “We do it with three shots in us, one eye blindfolded and we go past ten. If neither of us cannot do it, the money is split.”
I was shocked. He expects me to do all that? I wanted to quit, but my honor, pride and greed forbade me from backing down. “Alright, let’s go,” I said.
He started, reaching 10 and the middle/ring gap before stabbing his own hand. By this time, the crowd was bigger, as many had never seen such a high stakes game before. I swallowed the dryness in my mouth as he passed my knife back to me.
“Pass me three shot glasses and your armband, Monaco,” I said, nervousness leaking into my voice.
“It’s a bad idea,Finn. We can still walk away better off than when we came,” he said, handing me the glasses and his armband anyway.
“No, we can’t. I can’t,” I said, breathing deeply. “Not anymore.”
I downed the shots, tied the bandana and began the game. Thumb, index, middle, ring, pinky, back. Thumb, index, middle ring, pinky, back. I repeated this several times, getting faster each time but still taking minutes to reach each finger. Any noise that had been prevalent had been drowned out, the loud thunksof the knife ringing like church bells in my head. The only things currently in existence were me, my knife,and the table.
Before long, the ninth round had come and passed, leaving me on equal footing with Victor. I could finally see it, the light at the end. The knife plunged into the table between the index and middle finger, proceeding to the space that would make or break me. The knife sailed down, and I braced for the pain. None came. Instead, a thunk was heard. As I brought the knife back to continue, I felt a pain in my thumb and my stomach dropping. The crowd let out a collective gasp, and I knew I had failed. I turned to apologize to Monaco when I heard Victor swear and say “Well friend, the deck is yours. Hope you enjoy it more than I did.”
I couldn’t believe it. I had won? What Monaco said next nailed the point home, “Won by just a knuckle. You really are something else, Finnegan Wade.”
DORIAN J. SINNOTT
ELISE DANIELLE IRWIN
ESTRELLA DEL VALLE
JORGE SERRANO SIERRA
ROBERT E. PARKIN
RUTH Z. DEMING
RYAN R. ENNIS
SANTOSHI SUBRAMANIAN & SHALINI PARAMESWARAN
TAMARA NICOLE CANTY