Tag Archives: September Stories

September Stories (9/14)

So continues my September Stories project! If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-14

Justice
by Danielle Davis

Matthew raked his fingers through his hair in frustration. This case and all its witnesses could go to hell for all he cared. He scanned his badge over the console on his desk to log in to his computer station. But while he’d intended to revisit the last testimony of the victim’s brother, he found himself somehow logging into the Ministry of Preservation’s site and entering his grandfather’s ID number. It was a pastime he’d been doing more and more lately, as the difficulty with this damned case grew.

Subconsciously, he was sure that visiting his grandfather’s memories–via the Virtual M.E. file that had been uploaded after his death–was more self-flagellation than anything else. But he told himself it was encouraging, that visiting the brain of one of the greatest policemen in the U.S. was sure to rub off some good-mojo on his own policing skills. His grandfather, Officer Basil Montgomery Palmer III, had not only been the highest-decorated officer back in 3024, but he also had the highest number of solved cases in the precinct.

He knew his Sergeant expected more of him as the grandson of the great Basil Palmer. Matthew’s own performance in law enforcement had been slightly above average, he supposed, and he had a passion for it that outweighed most of his counterparts. But it wasn’t stellar, like his Grandfather Basil’s had been. Which meant that he could be as above average all his life, but he would never come close to measuring up as “good enough” for someone of Basil Palmer’s line.

Despite the pressure it put on his career to measure up to his grandfather’s legacy, Matthew was proud to be his grandson. He’d always had a unique connection with his grandfather, something his brother Bill never quite understood. When Grandpa Basil would start in on some glory day case or another, Bill always found some reason to leave the room, but Matthew was enraptured. His grandfather had a way of making him feel like he was right there, both as the policeman and the criminal, and he loved the thrill it always gave him.

His Grandpa Basil was the reason he joined the force five years ago. The day they attached his mind scanner–the hard drive chip inside his brain that acted as a personal camera recording his thoughts, memories, and interactions—his Grandpa Basil had cried. It was one of the proudest days of his life, for his grandson to follow in the same footsteps.

Matthew knew this because he’d seen it in his grandfather’s own memories. They were located on the Ministry’s site along with the other thousands of Virtual M.E. files scanned from deceased federal employees. Had he been a civilian, he wouldn’t have had unfettered access—he’d have had to request specific memories under the Revised Freedom of Information Act—but as a cop, he only had to know his grandfather’s badge ID to access the whole .VME file and everything it contained. All the heartache, the joys, the memories.

Naturally he favored revisiting the memories where he’d been interacting with his grandfather. But lately he’d been wandering farther back, looking through the memory files related to his grandfather’s old cases.

Maybe if he looked at enough of them, his grandfather’s brilliance would unlock something in his own brain that would help him crack this case.

It had started as a simple murder. It was almost certainly the boyfriend who’d done it, as it usually was, though the boyfriend had a fairly strong alibi for the night. Then they’d uncovered forensic evidence that linked him definitively, alibi or not, to the murder site. And that’s when the whole thing went sideways.

Witnesses began crawling out of the walls all describing the same looking man, someone almost the physical opposite of the suspected boyfriend. But despite the damning forensics, the witnesses had no connection to the boyfriend. More bodies began appearing with similar details—women with the same physical characteristics, murdered and mutilated in the same way, the murder locations all set up with similar themes.

Other forensics began trickling in, all deadends, in a pattern that was almost teasing in their coyness. One site would have nothing, be damn near sterile in its perfection, then the next would be all-over covered in prints, hair fibers, tissue samples. But none of them fit—there might be twenty different prints around, but none of them could be matched or identified. Blood splatters would be thrown about that didn’t belong to the victim, or none of the victim’s would appear anywhere within the scene.

It was baffling.

He plucked his way past old memories that predated his birth. Predated his brother’s. All the way back to his father’s birth. 3014—the year of the case that had made his grandfather famous. The details were well-known, even for someone who hadn’t known Officer Basil Palmer well—they’d been all over the media. A serial killer who’d been attacking young college co-eds around the city. It had taken his Grandpa Basil a decade to catch the bastard.

He hadn’t been able to wrap up everything, but he’d taken the killer down, which was really all that mattered. Though there was a strong suspicion that the killer had had a partner—another set of shoeprints at some of the sites, an odd hair or tissue sample that didn’t belong to the killer or the victim—the idea was shut down pretty quickly. The killings stopped as soon as the guy was arrested and forensics did place him at every one of the murder sites. Grandpa Basil’s Sergeant had declared the case closed and his grandpa had become a hero. The hero that had taken down a terrible serial killer, one whose career splattered an entire decade with blood.

Matthew’s eyes scanned over the pictures of the victims. They were all brunettes, too, just like with the case he was working. His gaze crawled over the mutilated bodies, the close-ups of their slack, beautiful faces, noting the details he’d seen countless times before. What had his grandfather seen that had helped him crack the case?

This case was one they cited when training young officers, so even without his Grandpa Basil’s memories, Matthew was familiar with the details of the case. Everyone was.

Matthew tried to put himself in his Grandpa Basil’s shoes.

Then a flash of silver caught his attention. He scrolled back through the photos and stared hard at the one that had stood out, trying to figure out what had caught his eye. He’d seen these photos countless times before. He knew all the details.

So why was it he couldn’t remember ever having seen that necklace before?

His stomach turned uneasily. He never remembered seeing that necklace in any of the case photos before. In fact, that had been one of the misleading parts, since all the women’s jewelry had been removed before they’d been killed. At first, the police thought they were robberies gone wrong, until more women died and the pattern became obvious.

So why did his grandfather’s memory contain a detail that none of the actual case photos did?

Matthew scrolled through the photos, scrutinizing each one more closely. Victim #3, Sofia Marsh, found in the hospital morgue. In his grandfather’s memory, she wore a pair of emerald stud earrings. More photos.  Victim #5, Adriana Colvig, found in a rental cottage on an abandoned hiking trail. Wearing a small gold cross and a wedding band. The details in the .VME file were so startlingly clear it was like looking through a mirror.

How did his grandfather have memories of the bodies that were not officially recorded?

Then his fingers tapped one last picture, the last in the memory file, and he nearly threw up. There was Victim #8, Brynn Caselotti. She was naked, except for a magenta scarf binding her hands together, and staring into a mirror. The surface was dirty and cracked in the upper corner, like that of a crappy motel mirror. A hand was wrapped around her throat from behind, the man holding her standing very close. The hand gripped her throat but not hard enough to hurt. The gesture looked intimate, possessive.

If it wasn’t for the look of stark terror in the woman’s expression, Matthew would have believed it to be the stance of a lover.

Instead, he saw the way the woman looked into the mirror, into the eyes of the man grinning over her shoulder. Both stared into the mirror, each looking into each other’s eyes in the filthy surface. The man’s grin was predatory, lecherous. Obviously enjoying the woman’s terror.

It was a look Matthew had never seen on his grandfather’s face. Before now.

“No, it can’t be,” he murmured. He realized he was repeating no over and over like it was a prayer.

This was not a photo that had appeared in any case file. And there was certainly no reason for his Grandpa Basil to be in contact with any of the victims. Unless…

“The accomplice,” Matthew breathed. And, now that he thought about it, now that the connection was right in front of him, didn’t he actually remember seeing Victim #3’s necklace before? The pretty silver bird flying on its square chain, the kind with the lobster claw clasp? A lark for my Lark, isn’t that what she’d said he told her? When his Grandpa Basil had presented his Grandma Lark the present on her forty-ninth birthday?

Matthew’s stomach heaved and he clumsily dove for the trashcan next to his desk. He barely made it. While he gasped and groaned through the loss of his dinner, his mind kept repeating the same image: the lascivious smile on his grandfather’s face in the mirror. His hand clasped so possessively around the woman’s throat.

Those women had suffered a long time before they’d been killed. It was one of the more gruesome cases he’d ever studied. The man his Grandpa Basil arrested and who later went to the chair for his crimes had been creative in his cruelty.

Almost as creative as arresting your partner for murders you helped commit, so as to cover up your own involvement and become a decorated hero.

Matthew’s head spun as he dug his fingers into the metal rim of the trashcan. So many awards. Such empassioned acceptance speeches. He pictured his Grandpa Basil’s hands, firm and calloused as they helped him to his feet as a boy. Twining through the thick strands of a dead woman’s hair. Smearing pie filling on Matthew’s small nose as they baked a pie on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Smearing a streak of blood down a thrashing woman’s thigh. His wide, white dentures shining through a wide, laughing grin. Those lips spread into an evil promise as they smiled at a woman in a dingy mirror.

Dimly, his mind circled back to Sofia Marsh. Victim #3. Found in a hospital morgue. Something about that seemed important, but he was too busy trying to make sense of his horrifying discovery. His thoughts felt like leaves in a whirlwind, flying all directions, sweeping by just close enough for him to see but unable to catch.

Why did it have to be him? And how? The man that Matthew had idolized, had grown up hearing his tales of heroics and justice, a serial killer? Grandpa’s stories always made him feel like he was right there… The assisted mutilator of fifteen different women, tortured in the most gruesome ways possible? Both the policeman and the criminal…

Sofia Marsh. Victim #3. Hospital morgue.

Soft as a sigh, the detail clicked into place. Of course, the morgue. He sat back on his heels and gazed with a confused, dazed frown at the case file that laid open on his desktop. The case that had seemed like the boyfriend, except for all those other witnesses…and the random tissue and hair samples…

Of course.

They’d been deadends because they’d come from dead bodies to begin with. He recalled the list of the boyfriend’s acquaintances, the drinking buddy he’d known since high school, the one that worked at a funeral parlor a few blocks from where the guy’s girlfriend, the first victim, had been found.

He thought he’d just solved the case. He should have been proud.

But all he wanted to do was crawl under the covers of his bed at home and sleep. For a month. It was the only reaction he could think of compared to the horror that was coming once he made the .VME file known. Those memories of the case that had made his grandfather’s career were about to damn his entire life. And probably Matthew’s as well.

He couldn’t imagine what he’d say to his father. His brother. His grandmother, who lived with his parents because her hips were too bad for her to get around easily on her own. He’d have to report it to his Sergeant immediately

With trembling fingers, he tapped a command on the console keyboard.

The next step was obvious. He wondered if his Sergeant was even still awake at this time of night.

A confirmation message popped up on the screen. Delete record? This will remove all memory files contained within.

He thought of how his grandmother’s face lit up when she first showed off her birthday necklace, how her long fingers had stroked the outstretched wings of the bird.

A click of the mouse. Yes. 

It was done.

A sigh heaved itself out of his mouth. His shoulders sagged. He hadn’t had a drink in months, but he sure as hell wanted one now.

However his hand didn’t shake as it reached for the telephone and dialed the phone number.

“Sarge? It’s Matthew. I think I figured out what we were missing in the Ramsey case…”

Now he’d have stories of his own. Stories that would make his future kids feel like they were there. Policeman and criminal. The thrill of justice.

Total Writing Time: 2 hr., 23 min.

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September Stories (9/11)

So continues my September Stories project! If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom. (Note: This one is appearing out of order because I made a visual error and missed the 9/11 line in my spreadsheet. Also, it turned out to be pretty long, so hopefully that makes up for being almost-forgotten.)

9-11

Honor Among Thieves
By Danielle Davis

Emerson scratched the back of her neck where a few tendrils of hair tickled the skin around the bionic spinal support. Her nails skimmed over the hard polysilicon case of the first node to scratch around the edges, where it met flesh. The sensation triggered a reactive shiver down the rest of the spinal nodes implanted down the middle of her back. Though only three nodes of the bionic vertebra had external cases, and were visible between her shoulder blades, the rest were transdermal the rest of the way down. And they still itched.

She twitched her shoulders, trying to get rid of the sensation, as she gazed over the rest of the passengers on her ship. She tried to ignore the collective weight in their gaze as they looked back at her. She knew how she must look to them—everything about her outfit screamed rag-tag: leather porkpie hat with the fraying brim atop a blue and black striped bandana. Wayward strands of sea foam green hair that had escaped beneath it—just enough to cover the strap on the eyepatch over her right eye. A single-strap leather vest that crossed across her chest, shiny from the years of use, and the way it left her arms and one shoulder bare. The mismatched brass buttons down the front of it and the bright, even gleam of the bullet holder armband tightened across her bicep. The worn, baggy trousers that cinched tight at the waist, held in place by her gunbelt. Pants legs tucked into thick-soled black boots covered in assorted straps and buckles.

All of it was largely worn for comfort and functionality, though she knew it helped contribute to the ambiance. After all, as one of the last remaining charter boats this side of the galaxy, she had a certain part to play. So she was used to the looks she normally got.

But it was harder to pretend they weren’t staring at the BioProsth that formed her right arm from the elbow down. With a deep breath, she twitched the brim of her cap and took a few steps toward the crowd, tapping the microphone application at her voice box.

“Hello! I am Emerson Maguire, Captain of the Magna Charter, and we are pleased to have you aboard today!” The microphone app connected her voice to the ship’s speaker system—it was amplified so that she could be heard anywhere on the ship over the whirring of the engine.

With a grand wave of her bionic arm, she indicated the vessel they stood on. Her voice droned in the well-rehearsed welcome speech, the one she got to make up to four times a week if she was lucky. So far, this was only the second time she’d said it and it was already Thursday.

It wasn’t hard to keep the resignation from her voice, but she did have to make a slight effort. The effect of all their dull eyes on her made her skin crawl, so she fixed her eyes on a bare spot on the deck, somewhere in the middle of the crowd, so it looked like she was looking at them.

“The rest of my crew are in the process of getting ready to push off, so you’ll be introduced to them later. Today’s expedition will head toward the Vega Mizair System and cruise the orbit around Arcturus VII. From there, we should be able to get some fantastic sightings of various astro-maritime creatures in their natural habitat. Also, in accordance with Federation Article 718, I am required to inform you that the Astro-Maritime Control Agency maintains a strong protection over such creatures and it is against Federation law to interact with them in a civilian capacity. In other words, it is illegal to shoot them through anything other than a camera lens.” She paused with a small smile to allow the expected chuckles.

“There are 13 of you setting sail with us today. As you have all been given the ship rules, I expect you to abide by them. This is also true of anyone within your care.” She eyed a couple with two young kids—the girl had a smug look she didn’t like the look of. That look said the girl thought she was above such warnings. Which meant she’d probably be the first one Emerson was going to have to rescue from falling overboard, or turning on the delousing spray instead of the shower faucet, or throwing trash over the rails to leave a floating line of debris in their burn wake.

A sudden breeze across the deck made everyone’s hair flutter. The air took on the salty tang of ocean spray as the processed air canisters kicked on. Emerson’s nostrils flared, always hungry for that first breath that smelled like freedom. She saw others in the crowd do the same, some subtle and others not so much so.

Below her feet, the deck thrummed as the ship’s stabilizers kicked in. She glanced up and noticed the bio bubble that surrounded this portion of the ship was still transparent, giving an expansive view of the docking station they were currently joined to. As she watched, however, the scene changed so that puffy white clouds chased each other across a clear afternoon sky instead of showing the metal supports and uniformed dock staff. Once they got into deep space, Maisee would turn the bio bubble transparent again so the passengers could enjoy the beauty of the galactic imagery they passed.

Of course, red dwarves and multi-ringed minor planets weren’t what this crows paid to see. They were aboard to view some of the astro-maritime creatures wandering about space. And, if they were very lucky, a nebula shark or two.

But Emerson was going to make sure they got to see one. A certain backer had made a very special request, in the form of an implied amount of untraceable credits, if such a feat was successful. And given how slow the last few months of honest work had been, she and her crew needed it.

She had never regretted going straight arrow more—well, mostly straight arrow, since she didn’t turn away under-the-table payments if the offer was right—than when her ship’s fuel tank was nearly empty and she had only a half-load of paying passengers aboard. Not to mention a crew that had taken a liking to eating and getting paid.

She nodded as she concluded her speech, touching her fingers to the brim of her cap in a sort of salute. The passengers gave half-hearted applause and wandered away. Some would be looking over the railing of the deck, enjoying the simulated feel of sunshine and salt water on their faces. Others would be putting away or getting items out of their storage lockers under deck. And still others would just have a seat on the few benches available on the viewing deck and wait until the expedition got underway.

But when she turned, she noticed the young couple moved closer and was eyeing her bionic arm with fascination. It was little more than two bare pistons, which formed the forearm, attached to a shiny metal hinge at the elbow. It looked more like twin gun barrels than a proper prosthetic her passengers were used to seeing. She had multiple attachments that clipped into the end, depending on the purpose. Today she wore the hand attachment, which was comprised of three finger appendages and a thumb covered in PseudoSkiin. Under the family’s wide eyes, she reflexively flexed the digits into a fist.

“I can’t remember the last time I saw low tech that old still in use,” the man said. Though his voice was casually conversational, Emerson stiffened.

“Byron!” His wife flushed and smacked his arm. “Captain, my husband didn’t mean to say that.” She threw her husband a sharp sideways look as she growled. “Did you, honey?” The kids looked from her face to his.

Emerson forced a stiff smile. She was very aware of how she must appear to them given the older quality prosthesis.  “The outer shell got damaged some time back,” she said with false cheerfulness. “So even though the cords are exposed between the pistons–” with her other hand, she pointed to the black electrical cords looping messily from her elbow down the forearm”–it still works fine.”

She fluttered the fingers in a wave at the kids, who grinned. “It is low tech but it’s durable. In about five years, all I’ve ever really had to fix was the odd fluid line. They get caught and snap every now and then. And occasionally I’ve got to patch the PseudoSkiin, but who doesn’t, ya know?” Though the couple nodded and smiled at Emerson’s joking tone, they weren’t quite able to hide their discomfort. The wife thanked Emerson for her time and then steered the family away.

Landbounders, Emerson thought with a small trace of bitterness. So accustomed to med care that kept most injuries from needing bio attachments. Wealthy enough to afford, for serious injuries, bio limbs that looked like the real thing. Wealthy enough to have white collar jobs that paid from the neck up. And certainly–

“Wealthy enough to charter us to shuffle them around the solar system for a few hours,” Rilk murmured as he coiled a length of rope next to her. Emerson raised an eyebrow, causing Rilk to grin. Having an empath on board was helpful, especially when it came to customer service, but Emerson hated when Rilk read her without permission.

Emerson looked out over the handful of tourists loitering around the prow railing. “One of the benefits of being Captain of a charter boat is getting to direct our services to our paying customers,” she murmured back. “Not by being on the receiving ends of them, First Mate Delaney.”

Rilk pressed his thin lips together to wipe away the grin, but his eyes still glinted at her. “Ay ay, Captain.” Though Rilk was an excellent empath, despite having drunk the serum to become so only two years prior, his real talent was the utter deception of his physical appearance.

With his shaved head, hooked nose, and tattooed skull, he looked more like a hired thug than an empath. He was tall, with massive forearms, and a midsection so muscular it erased any waistline curves a fit man normally had. He was aggressively intimidating, but if one looked in his eyes, they’d see the clear, gray kindness inherent to all empaths. Luckily for her, few worked up the guts to look him in the eyes.

Thanks to his appearance, she rarely had trouble from raiders or brawlers when they were planet-side. This was especially handy when he accompanied her on some of their less-than-lawful excursions. Particularly since folks tended to see Emerson’s spine and arm prostheses as indicators of weakness.

But while his strength made him handy around the ship, his mental talents were what Emerson retained him for.

“I need to know who’s got pretties they could be persuaded to hand over.” She left off the part where they then forget they ever did such a thing. Rilk knew how the game was played.

Rilk glanced over the group on deck, assessing each with a cool glance. “I thought we were going straight on this one, Cap’n.” He spoke sotto voce as he appraised the passengers.

She shrugged. “Well, a bent arrow can’t fly straight all the time, can it? Especially when it’s carrying a load only half full.”

Rilk turned to face her but gazed at a spot over her shoulder as he coiled a length of rope. “I’d say the two couples near the railing—one’s trying to recruit the other to swing with them later tonight–; the sharp-dressed gentleman on the aft side, who is considering his sizeable stock funds; the older woman in the purple dress, who’s only doing this because her late husband never got the chance, even though she hates space, always has–; the middle-aged guy who’s about to hit on the woman to his left, and the woman to his left who sees right through him and is planning how gently to turn him down.”

Emerson frowned in appreciation. “Nice. But, seriously? That’s barely half our body load!”

“There are a few more near the storage compartments. I’ll see what kind of read I get on them later.”

“What about the couple with the kids?” Emerson asked, jutting her chin in their direction.

But Rilk didn’t even turn around. “Nah. They’re strapped. Family outing they could barely afford, but they want it to be a nice experience for the kids. They’re going to tell them about the divorce when they all get home.”

“What a big happy family we are,” Emerson grumbled. That was the part she hated most—hearing about peoples’ sordid lives and petty details. She wasn’t above pettiness, as a general business rule. But it was always depressing hearing about how sad the bulk of folks’ lives actually were. Rilk’s reports rarely contained happy details.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” Rilk murmured. He turned and headed toward the woman he’d reported was about to get hit on.

The deck beneath Emerson’s feet shuddered, sending up a startled cry from the passengers. Most of them clutched at the deck railing to keep their footing. She noticed the woman Rilk was intent on fall conveniently into his arms as the ship undocked, much to the dismay of the man next to her.

A young woman with blue skin and black eyes moved past her. Instead of hair, her head formed into two horns that curved like a ram’s down around either side of her face. She balanced on the thick mass of her tail as she slithered upright toward the passengers. As she caught Emerson’s eyes, she gave a small salute, then adjusted the uniform jacket around her upper torso.

“Now if I can have everyone’s attention, please,” she called in a sultry human voice. The passengers stared with delighted fascination as they formed a semi-circle around her. The Midusii were a hypnotizing race, which was why Emerson had been so keen to employ one as the tour guide. Once they were in sight, it was hard for most people to look away.

The Midusii were generally shy but, thankfully, Ariadne didn’t mind being the face in front of the passengers. It helped keep their minds off the more boring in-between parts of travel, which Emerson liked, and it allowed Ariadne a chance to display her above-average knowledge of space travel, celestial bodies, and astro-maritime creatures.

Also? It kept the passengers not focused on how well their valuables were stowed.

“How are we doing?” Emerson leaned over her pilot’s shoulder as she glanced at one of the side screens. Ariadne’s mouth moved as she gestured to something off the port side of the ship, while the passengers looked on in awe. Rilk was nowhere in sight, which was good—it meant he was already inspecting the valuables in the storage compartments to see what was worth acquiring.

“Well, ok so far, though I’m getting a strange read from our wake,” Maisee answered back. “It’s like we’ve got an echoing burn signature. Kinda weird, but nothing I’d be too worried about.”

The large black bear twitched an ear in irritation as she glared over her shoulder. “Can you give me some space, please?” Maisee let out a snuffling, snorting laugh as she realized the pun she’d made—she adored them—then sobered. “No, really, you’re breathing into my ear and it’s…” She shook her head, making her ears make muffled slapping noises, and growled.

“Cool it, Maisee. I just want to know where our payload is?”

“Well, technically we just passed it. Didn’t you see the schools of alpha- and beta-starfish back there? There were about three…no, four, classifications of them, I believe. Then we had the pod of Rigelwhales, which were feeding on the protoplankton. That was super cool—I love Rigelwhales.” She turned to fix her beady black eyes on Emerson. “Did you know I once thought I was going to be an astro-maritime biologist? When I was a cub. I used to put on these shows for my parents where I–”

Emerson sighed and gave Maisee an impatient look. Ursa-sapiens were a talkative species and they got distracted very easily. Which was fine if you didn’t have any information you wanted particularly fast.

But Emerson did.

“Sorry,” Maisee said. Her ears flattened to her head in apology, then pricked forward again as she turned back to the screen in front of her. “We’ve also had several, uh, other types of creatures. And we’re closing in on the energy bursts I was monitoring last week. I think we’re close to their territory.”

“Good,” Emerson murmured. She scanned the screen like she was expecting a nebula shark to dart across it at any moment.

“Uh, Captain?”

Emerson’s eyes didn’t leave the screen. “Yeah, Maisee?”

“You’re doing it again,” the bear said. She sounded apologetic. “The ear breathing thing…?”

“Right!” Emerson took a step back and nodded. “Keep me posted on the com, ok?” She turned to leave.

“Where will you be, so I know which quadrant to ping you on?”

Emerson skipped down the metal railing that led from the control room, calling back over her shoulder. “In the storage compartments!”

Then, as her boots clanked down the ship walkways, her voice lowered to a growl. “To find out who our anonymous benefactor might be.”

The plan had been to meet in the storage compartments below deck once they were an hour underway. Then Emerson would be able to meet the person who’d been messaging her about their deal. The person, who’d always signed off as “N.P.” had asked for a nebula shark sighting, which was tricky on the best of days. Aside from nebula sharks being one of the rarest astro-maritime species to have been discovered in about 140 years, the AMCA kept a tight patrol on known territories—nobody was allowed within the range of a light year. So the trick came in knowing not only where the best locations were to find them but also the timing of the patrols. In return, the Magna Charter would receive a “donation” of three deca credits. All untraceable. All under the table.

It was the best deal she’d had in months.

But the benefactor never showed.

After waiting ten minutes past rendezvous, Emerson knew something was up and it wasn’t just her temper. She’d had to call in a favor with a friend at the AMCA for the patrol schedule and pay a small sum to another for the location of a small breeding ground just outside the asteroid field that orbited Arcturus VII. Both the favor and the credits were things she didn’t give up lightly. But in light of the potential payload, it had seemed like a good investment. Even when weighed against the few decades she and her crew would get if they got caught anywhere near where they were.

And now the envelope with her donation was nowhere to be seen.

“This is why crime never pays,” she grumbled to herself as she stomped back up the stairs to the top deck. “You can’t even trust an honest thief these days!”

She arrived on deck with the intent of finding Rilk to get him to out their benefactor—they weren’t going to get out of their chat so easily. But as soon as she cleared the passageway, she caught a flash of fuchsia and electric blue streaks that looked like lightning and halted, enraptured.

They’d found it. Maisee’s monitoring was nearly never wrong and the source was obviously reliable, but even Emerson had been a little doubtful they’d actually arrive at the right place at the right time.

The nebula shark glided over the bio bubble. Its body was a swirling, shifting mass of gasses that flowed over itself in magenta-, lilac-, and blue-colored clouds. The mouth, always open, always searching, showed the black gap of space between its jaws. The tail moved in long strokes that left behind small streaks of ionized dust particulate.

And it was huge.

Everyone’s head turned in unison as they tracked its arc over the top of the ship. It was easily three times the size of the Magna Charter, which was a medium-sized vessel. Emerson wondered what would happen if it decided to swallow them whole. Would they burn to death in the heated cloud of gas that made up its internals? Or would they glide right through it like a hand through a phantasm?

Another shark followed, this one smaller and covered in purple and yellow clouds of shifting gas. Emerson tore her eyes away and glanced over the deck. With shock, her eyes took in the swirling shapes of five others, all of various sizes, as they glided through the dark space around them.

“It’s a shiver,” she murmured to herself. It was something she’d never thought she’d actually see.

She heard a low buzzing sound that got increasingly louder, even as she turned to find its source. But she saw it at the same time as everyone else: a sleek metal bullet raced through the space above their bio bubble.

The crowd gasped in surprise, all of them craning their necks as they tried to get it back into view. It had disappeared around the other side of the ship in the time it took for them to take a collective breath. But Emerson knew what they’d seen—there was only one kind of ship with that kind of speed that would be out this far.

Poachers.

They favored smaller ships, the type of moon dusters that had tight maneuverability but not the build to handle the cold of deep space. They usually stayed closer toward their origin planet, preying on the creatures and smaller vessels they could catch within its gravitational range. The ships were usually decked out with magnetized laser captures, able to immobilize larger things for a short time. But since it only took a few seconds to electroblast whatever they’d caught, it didn’t matter how long they were able to hold their prey before it got away.

She couldn’t believe she was seeing one this far out. It had to be impossible. Something Maisee said tickled the back of her mind, but she pushed it away. Now wasn’t the time to figure out how it had gotten here. What mattered was getting it gone before they got themselves and her boat caught by the feds.

She bolted toward the passengers crowded together on the deck and slid to a halt next to Ariadne.

“Rilk.” Emerson’s voice was tight with urgency, and Ariadne nodded her head toward the observational deck above them.

Emerson immediately turned and sprinted up the stairway to the upper deck, taking the steps three at a time and using her hands to pull herself up the railing. She didn’t have a plan formed yet, but that rarely stopped her before—some of her best plans had been made on the fly.

But when she reached the upper deck, Rilk was nowhere in sight. However, the woman he’d saved from falling earlier was. She leaned against the railing, gazing up at the nebula sharks with a dreamy expression on her face.

“Have you seen First Mate Delaney?” Emerson gasped out. But even as she spoke, she appraised the woman before her. Something about her demeanor made Emerson’s skin tighten in warning.

“Lovely creatures, aren’t they?” the woman sighed. “I’ve always wanted to see one, ever since I was small. I used to pester my parents all the time to take me on a charter outing like this one.” Her words reminded Emerson of what Maisee had said earlier. When I was a cub…I used to put on these shows for my parents… But that wasn’t all Maisee had said, was it? Hadn’t she also said something about–

“But we never got to go,” the woman continued, breaking Emerson’s train of thought. “It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned how amazing they actually are. And how valuable. All that energy!” The woman turned to Emerson with wide eyes. “Did you know that one small nebula shark can generate enough energy to power a small moon? Can you imagine what something that size could power?” Her expression turned wistful as she gazed back up.

But Emerson caught a greedy note in her voice, as well. And it finally clicked together.

“I’m sure quite a few things,” Emerson said in a casual voice. She moved a step closer toward the woman. “I’m also sure that someone wouldn’t hire a few poachers to ride our wake this far out for something as mundane as powering the neighborhood grids on a few planets.”

A few more steps closer. The woman remained gazing upward at the sharks prowling the space above the ship. Emerson’s peripheral vision was filled with swirls of silver and red and green. It was hard not letting them distract her.

“Poachers aren’t cheap, after all. Someone must have thought their fee to be a good investment. Especially if she was getting a better price herself.”

The woman glanced over her shoulder and gave Emerson a wicked grin. “Oh ‘better’ doesn’t even come close to what I’m going to get for them.” She turned with a rolling twist of her hip and strolled towards Emerson.

“Who’s the buyer?” Emerson asked. She forced her tight shoulders to slump as she cocked a hip to the side and rested a hand on it. Her BioProsth hung at her side.

But the woman just smiled and shook her head. “Someone who doesn’t like certain members of our Federation. And who likes things that go boom.” She shrugged. “I don’t ask for names. Just the account number where I’ll find my credits.”

Emerson laughed and ran her tongue along her top lip. “I can appreciate that. I have the same business model. But you gotta be careful. Sometimes folk don’t follow through like they say.”

“Oh, you’re not sore about that, are you?” The woman frowned, then rummage in her back pocket for something. Her hand emerged holding a small envelop, which she tossed at Emerson.

With her eyes on the woman, Emerson snatched it from the air and ripped the side edge off. She turned the envelope sideways, dumping the contents into the palm of her hand attachment. Only then did she glance down to examine it.

A thin strip of paper with thirteen digits on it.

She held it up at the woman and raised her eyebrows in silent question. The woman grinned in response. “It’s the account number, silly! You can relax now. You’re still getting paid. Three deca, just like we agreed.”

“So you’re N.P. I don’t remember an N.P. on the passenger listing.”

The woman made a tsk, tsk noise. “I wouldn’t be very good at my job if I used my real name during my transactions, now would I?”

“You also wouldn’t be very good at your job if you get us busted by the feds. And that’s exactly what’s going to happen with those idiots up there buzzing the sharks. Do you have any idea how small our window is? It was barely enough for us to get a sighting in, but we were going to make it. But catching one? Dragging it back to wherever it’s headed? That kinda time’s going to get you caught. And when the feds, who aren’t stupid, do a scan to find the larger ship that allowed the poachers to piggyback this far out in the first place, guess who they’re going to find? Me.”

“You don’t have to stay,” the woman said in a petulant tone. “I’ve seen what I came to see. You can get your little crew to turn this dinghy around—” she made a twiddling motion with her fingers “–and scoot us back to safety. Those guys are professionals–they’ll get my cargo without getting pinched.”

Emerson dropped the envelope and took several long strides forward. She stopped close enough that her nose brushed the other woman’s. So close the woman’s wide, startled eyes filled her view. “I don’t think you get it.” Emerson’s voice was a cold whisper. “The kind of energy it’ll take to catch something that large? That’ll set off sensors. Which’ll bring feds. Which’ll catch my boat. And I ain’t interested in that. Understand?”

Anger began to fill the woman’s eyes. Her lips slid into a sneer, then her mouth opened to respond.

The metal hinge of her BioProsth caught the woman in the jaw before she got a word out. She crumpled to the ground like a marionette whose strings were cut and didn’t get up.

Emerson glared at her smugly. “And I don’t like to be kept waiting. It’s rude.”

She left the woman where she lay and raced back to the control room. Maisee’s ears were pinned to her head in agitation as she monitored the small poacher ship on her screen.

As soon as Emerson burst into the room, Maisee began babbling. “Captain, I’m tracking the ship but I’m not sure what they intend to do seeing as how they’re only one small ship and they’re buzzing around an entire school of nebula sharks. But before you ask, I know how they got out here because I figured out that they must have ridden in our wake to stay warm enough not to freeze to death before they got here because, as you know, the Z42s don’t have the hull capacity to withstand the temperatures out in deep space. At least, not unless they’re using another ship’s burn to warm them, which is tricky but not impossible–”

“Maisee, I need you to focus. And listen.” Though Emerson’s words were spoken in a low, calm voice, Maisee shut up as if she’d been slapped.

“That’s not going to work,” came a gravelly voice behind her. Emerson turned with a glare and saw Rilk leaning against the cabin wall with an ice pack held to his temple.

“I haven’t even gotten it out yet,” Emerson snapped.

With his free hand, Rilk tapped his forehead. “We can’t shoot them out of the sky. We don’t have the ammunition. That got spent back on Cleopatra with the Feinstein brothers, remember?”

Emerson was forced to nod in agreement. What was supposed to have been a casual salvage swap had turned into a firefight when the Feinsteins decided they didn’t actually want to give up the parts they’d been intending to swap. It had gotten ugly.

“So what’s your bright idea?” she retorted in irritation.

Rilk grinned. “We leave ’em here.”

“And the feds?” Maisee asked. If Emerson had said it, it would have sounded snarky, but on Maisee it just sounded interested.

Rilk turned a gleaming eye to Emerson. “Don’t you have that buddy in AMCA…?”

Frowning, Emerson glared at him. “Of course I do. That’s how we found out about this location in the first place.”

But Rilk shook his head. “Not that one. The other one. The one that owes you the favor…?” He nodded his head for emphasis in a way that suggested Emerson was missing something obvious. His eyes darted to Maisee, then back to Emerson.

Emerson looked at Maisee with a blank face. Then suddenly she understood. “Oh! That one! The, uh, the favor!” Her cheeks flushed slightly as she turned to Maisee. “I want you to get Ward on the line, fast.”

Instead of moving, however, Maisee just blinked at them. She looked at Emerson, then at Rilk. “What does my brother have to do with any of this?”

“Just get him on the line for me, will you?”

Her furry face in a dumb expression of puzzlement, Maisee turned and, moments later, a broad fuzzy face filled the screen. “Maiz! What’s up? Why’re you calling on the private channel? Everything ok?”

Before Maisee could answer, Emerson pushed her way into view. “Ward, I need you to bring up the federal scanners for the quadrant around Arcturus VII.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“Just do it!” Rilk and Emerson shouted together. The bear jumped and began clacking on the keyboard in front of him.

After a moment, his brows furrowed together. “Why am I getting your ship’s ident coming up in that area? You aren’t getting my sister in any trouble, are you?”

“No, you’re getting her out of it,” Emerson said. “Once you erase that record.”

“What?” Ward hissed. He glanced over his shoulder at something they couldn’t see, then he leaned forward toward the screen. “I can’t just delete a federal record!” he whispered. “That’s a major offense punishable by–”

“If you don’t wipe that record, your sister’s going to find out exactly how long the punishment is. We’re on our way out now, but we don’t need anyone to know we’ve been here at all, got it?” A hard knot tightened Emerson’s stomach. What if he didn’t delete the record? What if they were found out after all? What if–

“It’s done.” Ward sighed at the screen, then glanced over his shoulder again. “But you have thirty seconds to vacate that quadrant or the next scan will snag you again, got it?”

Emerson grinned at him and snapped off a salute. “Maisee, you heard your brother. Let’s get the hell out of here!”

As Maisee punched in the coordinates and readied the ship’s hyperdrive, she cast Emerson a worried glance. “But Captain, what about the poachers. We can’t let them get those sharks. Can we?” He voice was hesitant and anxious.

But Rilk answered for her. “They won’t be able to do much harm. They might get a small one, but they won’t be able to tow it back anywhere. They’ll freeze to death first. If the feds don’t pinch them first.”

“Oh.” Maisee eased the ship into position and fired the hyperdrive. On one of the side screens, Emerson saw the passengers all fall to the deck and slide across it to slam against the wall. They ended up in a tangled pile of limbs and bodies, but thankfully none of them fell overboard.

As the ship soared through space, leaving the illegal quadrant far behind them, Emerson let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. That was a close one.

“Captain? Why did my brother owe you a favor?”

Emerson smiled and patted her on the shoulder. “Because I hired you.”

She snagged Rilk’s arm and pulled him behind her as Maisee gasped in outrage. They were out the door and down the stairs before the bear was able to form a response.

As they headed toward the top deck to untangle and console the passengers, Emerson gave Rilk a sidelong glance. “How’d you end up with that knot on your head?”

Rilk made a disgusted face. “That woman. Nola.”

“Nola?”

“Nola Penelope.” Emerson remembered the message logs signing off as “N.P.” and nodded. That made sense.

“One second I was putting my best moves on her, reading that she was totally into me, then the next thing I know, I’m on the floor of the storage compartment and there’s a crowbar on the ground next to me. I didn’t even see it coming. So I came up to the control room to see where she was. That’s when I saw that you’d already found her first. By the way, nice elbow.” His voice was warm with admiration. “You hit her right on the button.”

Emerson gave him a small smile, but her eyes glinted with something darker. “I don’t appreciate rude people. And I don’t like to be kept waiting.”

Rilk laughed and adjusted the ice pack on his head. Emerson let herself relax enough to laugh a little. Besides, the trip wasn’t a total waste, she realized. There was still an entire storage compartment of goods to pilfer. And she remembered every digit on the slip of paper in that envelope. What a shame it would be for Nola to wake up to find her account had been cleaned out. And with the credits being untraceable, there would be no paper trail for the police to find.

Emerson smiled to herself. And if N.P. was stupid enough to come looking for those credits? Well, she’d find out that sometimes marks didn’t take well to being marked. Sometimes they actually turned out to be sharks in disguise.

Total Writing Time: 6 hr., 45 min.

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September Stories (9/13)

So continues my September Stories project! If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-13

A Sheep in a Union Uniform
By Danielle Davis

Below him, the war raged on.

A voice behind him, gravelly with the fatigue of all war-weary soldiers, spoke up. “Hey man, want a smoke?”

Jeremy looked toward the sound of the voice and frowned. “Sir, I think you misunderstand the point of this endeavor.”

The man seated on the ground shrugged. He tucked the cigarette back into the inside pocket of his shirt and took a drag on the lit one in his hand. He sat with his elbows propped on folded knees clad in red, baggy trousers. Peeking from below the leg hems were bright chartreuse socks. His jacket, regulation grey, was folded neatly to one side of him. On top of it sat a black fez hat. “Just trying to be friendly. Just because we’re fighting on opposite sides doesn’t mean we can’t be nice to each other.”

“There is no nice in war!” Jeremy gave an indignant tug to the hem of his jacket. He couldn’t believe that some people didn’t take this more seriously. If you were going to do it, he thought, you might as well do it right. It was something his father had drilled into him young.

The seated man smirked and eyed Jeremy’s uniform. “Nice. You, ah, make that one yourself or did you buy it online? I heard Amazon’s got some great prices for this stuff.”

A flush blossomed across Jeremy’s cheeks. “Buy it? On Amazon?” His voice dripped with disdain. “Have you no respect for the uniform, soldier?” His own uniform matched the traditional U.S. Army soldier: blue jacket, trousers, and kepi hat. “I am no mere volunteer. I am a decorated member of our great country’s Army, and I stand for all that it–”

The other man laughed and waved at him. “All right, all right. I get it. Pop a squat with me for a bit, woncha? I’m losing track of who’s who down there.”

Jeremy closed his mouth and glared down at the sloppy man before him. “What’s your name, soldier?”

“Otis. Otis B. Fuddrucker.”

Jeremy snickered. “You’re kidding, right?”

Otis sat up a little straighter and frowned at him. “Of course not. Why, what’s yours?”

“Jeremy.” Then, remembering himself, he straightened his back and saluted. “Corporal Jeremy P. Addler, officer of the U.S. Army.” It was the rank his cousin had given him, even though this was technically his first reenactment. Though members of the reenactment troupe usually earned their rankings by how long they’d been a part of the group, Jeremy’s cousin had pulled a few strings. To make Jeremy’s first experience a good one, he’d said.

Otis rolled his eyes. “Yeah, ok.” He motioned with his cigarette at the group fighting at the bottom of the hill. The meadow stretched out below them—aside from the southern edge, where a plain wood-rail fence edged the border of the national park, it might have been some southern acreage taken over by Union and Confederate forces.

“Which group is it on the right, then?” The cigarette bobbed toward the right side of the fighting mass of men below.

“Gods, man, don’t you even recognize your own people?” Jeremy wasn’t sure why he was continuing to stand there and waste time with someone who obviously wasn’t passionate about what he did.

“Oh, is that the greys?” Otis leaned slightly forward and squinted. “Ah yeah. Groovy. I should’ve known it was them since they’re winning.”

“No they aren’t!” Jeremy pointed at a few of the Union leaders. “See how we’re flanking you to the right? That move is textbook. We’ve totally got you from both sides. This is exactly how the Confederate traitors lost.”

Otis shook his head. “You’ve got that wrong. First, this is the Battle of Bull Run, which was an overwhelming Confederate victory. Second, see how our scouts are stalking your outliers?” He pointed along a ridge toward a cluster of trees.

Jeremy squinted where he pointed. “You’re making that up. There’s nobody there.”

“There are! They wouldn’t be good scouts if you could see them.”

“You’re lying.”

“I would figure a stitch counter like yourself would have better eyes,” Otis drawled. “But aside from that, which war did you think this was again? Apparently one in which you thought the Union soldiers won?”

“Well, sure. I mean, of course I knew…” Jeremy frowned. “At least, that’s what my commanding officer said on the drive over. He told me we were on the winning side…”

Otis nodded sagely. “Ah, see? Gotta do your homework, Corporal.”

A purple flush worked its way up Jeremy’s neck to color his cheeks with splotchy patches. How dare this sloppy man address him like he was giving friendly advice? He was the one dressed for battle, not this polyester soldier! He knew more about the Civil War than this hobo ever would!

“Don’t talk down to me like you have any idea of what I know! I have studied this war extensively! I know all the strategies of each war, when they were fought, and who the major officers were in each one!” Though he stood as tall as he could, his voice wobbled with frustration. Had he missed something? The smirk on Otis’s face suggested he had.

“How long have you been doing this, son?” For a brief moment, Jeremy wondered if Otis somehow knew this was his first time on the field.

“Look here, Mr. Fuddpucker–”

“Fuddrucker. Fuddpucker’s is a restaurant.”

I know what I said!” Jeremy took a deep breath. “I don’t appreciate your condescending tone and I am certainly not your ‘son’. I am a Corporal in the U.S. Army, and if you cannot handle yourself appropriately, I’ll…I’ll…”

“Be forced to take me hostage?” Otis suggested.

“Perhaps,” Jeremy replied with an arced eyebrow. “So I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue, Mr. Fuddpucker–”

“That’s not my name.”

“–if you want to keep relaxing on your keister here on this hill while good men die down there.”

Jeremy turned, as if to leave, then saw that Otis was rising to his feet with a resigned sigh.

“Fine, if you’re going to be like that.” Otis brushed the grass off the seat of his pants, then dropped his cigarette butt and ground it out beneath his shoe. Then, grunting, Otis bent and plucked up his fez hat and jacket. He also picked up a scabbard that had been hidden in the grass underneath the jacket.

Jeremy watched as Otis held the scabbard between his knees while he worked his way into the Confederate jacket. He noticed the three stars at the uniform’s collar and struggled to remember what rank that was supposed to signify. Then his eyes caught the flash of gold on the jacket sleeve and his stomach twisted. An ornate design of braided cord, triple-banded to display a Colonel’s rank.

His mouth sagged slightly as he tried to control his shock. This man, a Colonel? This slovenly, terrible excuse for a soldier?

In a flash, Otis whipped his sword out of the scabbard still clenched between his knees and pointed it at Jeremy. This close, he saw it wasn’t a sword at all—it was an officer’s saber, with a delicate twist of wire bands serving as the grip guard.

“Consider yourself captured, Corporal. My commanding officer may negotiate a release with your ranking officer, but I doubt he’d be interested. You’re not much of an officer, and I don’t imagine you’re a very useful bargaining chip. If he doesn’t want you back, you’ll be executed at dawn.”

Jeremy gazed into Otis’s calm eyes and frowned. “Uh, that’s not…nobody told me anything about being executed,” he stammered. It seemed odd for Otis to step into the role of a proper soldier now. And yet…

He didn’t like the look of calm determination in Otis’s gaze. It certainly held a strength that hadn’t been there earlier.

“I don’t think that’s really necessary, Mr.–”

Colonel Fuddrucker, you peon!” The command in his voice made Jeremy jump. “And I suggest you shut your mouth. I don’t take orders from prisoners.”

“Look, I think we got off on the wrong foot,” Jeremy began. He stepped forward with a smile, hoping his voice sounded more confident than he felt. In actuality, he was seriously wondering if he was going to vomit. This had gotten startlingly serious fast.

The saber in Otis’s hand flashed and Jeremy felt a hot line of pain across his cheek. When he drew his trembling fingers away, they were red with blood. He clapped his hand to the wound and gazed at Otis in shock.

“Are you out of your mind?” he shrieked. “This isn’t part of the…” The saber twitched in warning. His voice died immediately.

“Get marching, prisoner,” Colonel Fuddrucker said. “It’s going to be a long night for you.”

Jeremy turned and put his hands behind his head. He hadn’t been ordered to, but it seemed like the right thing to do. “This was my first day here,” he whimpered.

“Better hope it’s not your last,” Colonel Fuddrucker whispered close to his ear, then laughed. “Now move those legs, son.” The saber pressed against the small of Jeremy’s back.

As they moved down the hill toward the fighting group of men, Jeremy heard the man behind him chuckle again, as if remembering something nostalgic. “God, I love these things.”

Total Writing Time: 1 hr., 20 min.

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September Stories (9/12)

So continues my September Stories project! If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-12

Eye for an Eye
By Danielle Davis

“Easy,” Jane crooned. She touched the fleshy crest that topped the basilisk’s head. She felt, rather than saw, its movement as it prowled a circle around her. “Easy, beauty, easy…”

It was agitated. Both of them could hear the horsemen above, the clatter of metal armor and the thick thud of horse’s hooves as the group approached. She cocked her head, trying to shut out the movement of the basilisk and concentrate on the movement of the soldiers—not an easy feat from the way sound tended to bounce around the stone enclosure of the pit.

Not more than four, she estimated. Which meant the king was present. She sucked in a sharp breath and stepped quickly back to the pit wall, as if she could hide in one of the crevices between the cool stones. Her legs gave way so that her bottom slid to the packed dry earth that lined the pit. It was too soon, too soon.

Her distress further aroused the basilisk. She felt the air shift as it reared high, balancing on the lower half of its body, and let out a squeal of defiance. She quickly whispered soothing words to it, words of caution and remembering. Though the pit was barely wide enough to accommodate a full-grown basilisk—one whose middle length was twice the diameter of a fully mature tree trunk—all precautions had been taken to ensure the basilisk’s pit was deep enough to contain it. The king had made sure of that and he was nothing if not a careful man.

The basilisk hissed a warning and Jane smelled the noxious rotten egg scent that killed men within seconds. Had she not been carefully acclimated to it over the years of training, it would have killed her, too.

The hoofbeats above halted. Jane quivered and reached out a hand to gently caress the bulk of the basilisk’s scaled tail as it moved past her.

“Jane Edith Yarrow! The king has need of something from his basilisk.” The voice that called into the pit rang with the false edge of authority inherent in the king’s primary servants. It was filled with self-import and the smug confidence that she would answer because she had no choice.

His basilisk, she seethed inwardly. With her cheek still pressed against the coolness of the stone, she shook her head. “I will not answer,” she whispered between clenched teeth. “I will not heed his call.” The basilisk hissed again in response. It fed off her emotions, and though she tried to quiet the anger and fear running through her body, she knew it could sense it anyway—basilisks were especially tuned to the chemical scent of human emotions.

“Basilisk handler, you must answer your king. He has bid your service and does not appreciate being kept waiting.”

“Is he there, our king? Is he waiting on the edge of the pit with you? Did he come in person to collect his prize?” Her mocking voice echoed off the walls of the pit like there were several of her yelling.

The basilisk’s tail moved backwards, so that it crept between her and the wall, and slowly tightened so that she was drawn into the midst of its strong coils. Once she was sheltered in its protective circle, it reared high again and spit out another poisonous cloud.

The men around the edge of the pit reeled back, gasping in their haste to draw their protective cloths across their noses and mouths.

“Make it stop,” the second voice warned, muffled through the hand that held his cloth in place. “Make it settle or we will be forced to withhold the next few meals from the both of you! I doubt the basilisk will be so content with your company once you are the only food source available.” The last was delivered in a jeering voice that made Jane’s ears burn.

She knew the basilisk would not harm her, such was her unique bond with it. But that was not common knowledge and she detested the fact that everyone thought her the basilisk’s prisoner. Especially when both her and the basilisk were the prisoners together. And the man with the crown above them was the jailer that held the keys.

Jane took a deep breath and smoothed her hands over the wall of scales that surrounded her. She pulled her palms along it in sweeping caresses with one hand following the path of the other. Using that touch to ground her, she took deep breaths in time with the movement of her arms. She let the strong feel of the basilisk’s muscles under its skin seep into her mind. His strength is mine, she chanted. His strength is mine. As she calmed, the bunching of the muscles under her palms slowed, too.

When they were both calmer, she tilted her head upward and called out to the men ringing the edge of the pit. “What does my king require of me?”

There was a long pause, and then she heard a small snick to her right: the sound of metal hitting earth.

“We need blood,” the king’s man called down.

Her throat worked as she gulped. Blood-letting the basilisk was always difficult. It was a temperamental creature and, like all predators, did not tolerate wounds well. She wished the request was for something easier, like saliva or tears. Those the basilisk gave to her with minimal effort on her part.

“How much?” she called back, hoping she wouldn’t next hear a bucket crash to the ground next to them.

“A pence-bag full,” was the answer, and with it she let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. That wasn’t much. The smallest nick would probably do it. A small thud came from the direction where she’d heard the other object fall.

Unfortunately, she knew the men wouldn’t give her the assistance of withdrawing their agitating presence while she drew it. The king was an impatient man, she’d learned, and his lackeys weren’t much better. It was a wonder any of them stood still long enough to take a piss, she thought to herself. Or maybe they just let fly while they strode along on their way to conquer whoever it was this week that needed conquering.

She whispered to the basilisk, hissing and whispering the things she thought might be pleasing to a basilisk to hear: words that spoke of its beauty and its strength, its fearlessness and heart, its large body and gleaming fangs, of prey that fled before it and birds that fell from the sky at its breath. Under her web of words, the basilisk quieted and slowly she convinced it to uncoil enough for her to move out of its protective circle.

Her hands crawled along the pit floor, finger twitching like spiders, as she felt her way in the dark to find the items pitched down to her. Finally, her fingers curled around the hard bone handle of a knife. With her other hand, she slid her fingers carefully along the flat of the blade to see its length. The alien feel of the cold metal seemed to repel her fingers, so unlike the natural coolness of the stone that welcomed her touch.

She gripped the handle tightly, hating the feel of it, and felt around until she found the pence bag. It was small, a bag whose full bottom would barely fill the cup of her palm. She shook out the rock they’d used to help it fall straight, then turned to the basilisk.

Its warm glare crept over her body. She could feel it, even if she couldn’t see it, and knew the power of its deadly gaze. The merest glimpse into its eyes could kill. She’d been trained about that, too—that had been the hardest part of her training, actually. But feeling the glare of it, like a slight burning that moved across her skin in small twitches and darting movements, had not been too hard to get used to. At the very least, it helped her know when she had its attention, and that’s what she sought now.

“Easy, big beauty,” she whispered to it. With the knife in one hand and the bag in the other, she moved carefully toward where she felt the head to be. She used the heat of its gaze, moving one way when the burning feeling left her and knowing she was getting closer by the increase in sensation on her skin.

She moved the bag to the hand that held the knife and held out her empty hand to the creature. Still, she whispered sweet things to it and let her mind fill with the serene picture of each as she named them: sweet grass, a breeze blowing across the skin, freedom, sky, sunlight.

The basilisk’s heavy head slid over her palm and she let her hand slide along the side of it into a caress. She stroked the soft underside of its chin, feeling the hard ridge of its jawbone against her forearm. Without breaking the caress, she used her other hand to make a small nick on the side of its neck, just behind its jaw where the veins were most numerous.

A scalding warmth spilled across her hand and she quickly moved the bag to its skin to catch the flow. When the basilisk flexed away from her, she sang stronger to it and pictured the images more firmly in her mind. Under the force of their bond, the basilisk remained still as it savored her touch and listened to the murmurs of her voice in its ear.

When the bag felt heavy, like a beating heart in her hand, she stepped away from the basilisk. “It’s done,” she called.

The rope fell on top of her head. She flinched away from it with an angry cry and the basilisk let out a similar squeal. She felt it begin to rear high, and she whispered to it furiously. She couldn’t lose it now, now until they knew for sure.

She turned away from the rope and crossed her arms. “Why don’t you come down and get it yourself!”

“Basilisk handler, you will do as you are bid!” The voice that called into the pit rang with age and authority. It was a voice that commanded members of the high court and soldiers on the battlements and stilled crowds. And now it commanded her.  There was no choice but to act once she heard it.

She reached back for the rope and worked it through her fingers to see how much length she had to work with. “I need more!” she called and another few coils hit the ground next to her. Her quick fingers measured the desired length, then knotted the end to form a loop.

She turned her face to the basilisk, seeking out the heat of his gaze in the darkness. With reaching hands draped with the rope loop, she found it as it swung to meet her. She eased the rope over its head, murmuring to it when it began to rile. She ignored the cries of shock and urgent commands being barked above her.

Within seconds, the rope was in place. They tried to tug it back up, but it was anchored firmly to the basilisk’s head and no amount of pulling was going to move it. Then she tucked the bag inside her tunic and swung her leg astride the basilisk’s great neck.

She gripped the rope with white-knuckled hands and whispered to the basilisk. At first, she wasn’t sure if the basilisk understood. Then, with a great surge, it reared up toward the opening of the pit, reaching farther and higher than it had before.

If she had measured correctly in the dark. If she had calculated the basilisk’s length correctly. If….if…

Then suddenly the basilisk was out and working the upper part of him to the side so he could draw up the rest of his body. The force of the landing threw Jane sideways on his neck, but she hung on and scrambled with her legs to regain her seat.

She heard shocked cries and the frantic clatter of hoofbeats fading as the basilisk gathered his tail underneath him and rose to the sky. She hung on, gasping partly with the effort of hanging on to the rope and partly with exhilaration. They’d done it. After years of painful training followed by more years stuck in the pit with the beast, they were finally free.

She felt the basilisk’s head dip as it looked down at the men frozen where they stood. One gave a strangled cry as his gaze met the basilisk’s—she heard his body crumple to the ground.

“You will control that beast!” the king roared. She didn’t have to see him to know how his face contorted as he spoke. It was one of the last faces she’d seen during her training to become the basilisk’s handler. She could still picture most perfectly the sneering curl of his lip as he gave the command, “Finish it.” She’d looked at him in terror, then to the face of her trainer, until they’d gouged her eyes out with the knife. That had been the end of her training, for no sighted person could ever survive as a basilisk handler.

One hand crept up to her cheek, then slid her fingers into the smooth hollows where her eye used to be. “They were blue,” she whispered. Her voice was little more than the puff of a summer’s breeze.

But the basilisk heard. And understood.

She had just enough time to curl her fingers around the rope before the basilisk’s head darted forward. She felt the great jaws shudder as they crunched through the king’s body. Though the basilisk could have swallowed him whole, she knew it preferred to bite its meals in half first. It liked the squirt of blood in its mouth.

Though her eyes still saw darkness, she thought she could feel the warmth from the sun on her face. It burned like the basilisk’s gaze. It was a feeling she’d welcomed back in the pit and so she welcomed it now. To her, that burn meant comfort. Revenge. Freedom.

She would always welcome the burn.

Total Writing Time: 2 hr.

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September Stories (9/9)

So continues my September Stories project. If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-9

The Bawdy Evening of Trip W.
By Danielle Davis

There once was a guy named Trip Wetter
Whose life couldn’t get any better.
Until he woke up
with extra cash and a sore butt
and fuzzy details ’bout last night’s bender.

He checked his phone for photos,
latest texts, calls, or mementos.
He found pictures instead
of him dancing at the head
of a conga line in a dress covered with bows.

He checked his wallet for receipts
and found it quite replete
with several large clues
that said he bought lots of booze,
which he guessed made him act indiscreet.

His sister called a bit later,
and asked “So, how did it fit her?”
When Trip asked who she meant,
she said “The girl that you met!
Didn’t she wear the dress you borrowed to give her?”

I didn’t remember a date with a girl,
so I called up my best buddy, Earl.
“Do you remember last night, kinda late,
me going out on a date?”
And Earl said “No, you were with me at The Blue Pearl.”

Earl said he’d left the bar earlier than planned,
but that I’d stayed to hear the live band.
But the bartender there
claimed I’d left “with some flair!”
with a handsome man sporting a tan.

The booze tabs had come from a place
known around town as “Chez Blaze.”
It was a drag bar downtown
with a cast quite renowned
when they did a rendition of Cabaret.

At Chez Blaze, the bouncer said “You’re back!
You know, you put on quite an act!
The folks in there raved
At how you behaved.”
Then he winked and gave my shoulder a whack.

I asked when I’d left there last night,
and he grinned and said “I figured you might.
You were so hammered
you spluttered and stammered,
when you left here around midnight.”

“Was I alone?” I asked fearfully,
Afraid of what he might tell me.
But he shook his head slowly
and said “Au contrary,
You were dressed to kill with a that hunk from New Delhi.”

I opened my mouth to retort,
to tell him that guys weren’t my sport,
when I got a call on my phone
from a number unknown–
what I heard made my legs lose their support.

The man’s voice on the other end
told me his name was Ben.
He said last night was a blur,
and then, to my utter horror,
admitted he woke up feeling quite spent.

With outrage I demanded he say
what happened before we went separate ways.
“Don’t you remember the tire?”
he asked with some ire,
then told me the rest without delay.

“We were on our way back to your place
when a tire blew and had to be replaced.
We both stumbled out,
(completely hammered, no doubt)
but struggled to get the spare on the base.

You declared that you’d hold it steady
then bent over and told me to get ready.
But my aim wasn’t so great
in matching the tire iron with its mate
And the tool went up your backside quite cleanly!

I tried to convince you to go to the ER,
but you resisted in a way most bizarre.
You asked for a napkin instead
to pack the wound while it bled
and kept saying you hoped it won’t scar.

I finally got you back to your house,
while you worried about being a louse.
It was the least I could do,
to leave some cash there for you
To catch a taxi to the ER when you were less soused.”

At that, I breathed a sigh of relief,
bid him thanks, and hung up in disbelief.
There’s worse than a tire iron to dread–
it could’ve been an air pump instead!
I think a good drink will treat my grief.

Total Writing Time: 2 hr., 40 min. 

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September Stories (9/7)

So continues my September Stories project. If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-7

The Egregia Cum Laude Adventure
By Danielle Davis

 It wasn’t the first time someone had contacted him about a case as he was walking to his 6am Political Science class, but it was the first time someone had thrown a rock at him to do it.

“OW!” He staggered and rubbed the back of his head. When his probing fingers found a lump already forming just behind his ear, he turned with a livid glare to find the culprit. His eyes found a tall young man jogging towards him.

Instinctively, Sherlock Holmes noted several details all at once. The man was still in his pajamas, the kind with white and blue stripes down the button-front shirt and pants. The touseled clumps of his hair stood up in several directions, and he was barefoot. These things he absorbed without even consciously realizing he was doing so.

What he did consciously note, however, was that the man’s face was creased with worry, and the eyes that locked on his appeared wide and anxious. The worry and anxiety were of no interest to Sherlock. What incensed him was the lack of apology in it.

“Are you Sherlock Holmes?” the man asked in a breathless voice as he halted in front of Sherlock.

Sherlock gave him a withering glare. “Why, was that rock meant for someone else?”

“I had to catch you before you went into the building,” the man said with a sheepish duck of his shoulders. “I was aiming for the steps to one side of you. I’m Reginald Dawes.”

Sherlock continued to rub the back of his head and glare.

Reginald gave a nervous glance around the open campus area around them, as if making sure there was no one else about. Sherlock rolled his eyes. Having no one about was exactly why he chose the early morning classes every semester—so he had to deal with as few people as possible. Other than a pair of women walking together on the opposite side of the university mall, there was nobody else in sight.

Sherlock let out a pointed sigh. “You have two minutes before I walk away to my next class. As much as I detest Poli Sci, I detest idiots wasting my time even more.”

“Right. Well…” To Sherlock’s frustration, Reginald  became hesitant to continue. “There’s been a…a murder.”

“Of course there has. People are murdered all the time.” With an irritable flap of his overcoat, Sherlock turned to leave.

“No! I mean here, on campus!” Reginald ‘s voice cracked in his panic.

Without stopping, Sherlock said over his shoulder, “Statistically speaking, there have probably been more than five since the campus was opened. Good day.”

The door to the building was half open when Reginald shouted behind him, “They’re saying it was an accident. But I know better. And I think I know who did it.”

Sherlock paused with his hand holding the door open. “Then why haven’t you told the police?” His voice still sounded brique, but it had lost its angry tone.

Now Reginald’s voice turned hopeful. “I did. But they’re the ones saying Ben died by accident.”

“I see.” Still Sherlock didn’t move. “But you think otherwise?”

“That’s right, sir. Ben wasn’t the kind to die from…what they said. He was real careful about his medications.”

“Hmm.” In a quick movement, Sherlock pivoted and took several large strides to stand in front of Reginald, who gazed at him with naked hope on his face. “And what do you want me to do?”

“Get enough proof together that the police will reopen the case. And arrest her.”

“Her.”

“Ben’s girlfriend.”

“Who you think killed him?”

“Who I know killed him, sir.”

Sherlock nodded to himself. “Why do you think the police will listen to me?”

“Word around town is that you solve problems, find things other folks miss. I’ve heard you worked with the policemen around here before.”

With a grimace, Sherlock averted his gaze. “Worked with yes? Made lifelong friendly connections, no.” At Reginald’s questioning look, he added, “They don’t like it when you show them how stupid they are.”

“So you’ll take the case?” Reginald thrust out his hand, waiting for Sherlock to shake it. “I can pay,” he added quickly.

Sherlock cast a calculating glance behind him. “Well, I don’t know…” He frowned and steepled his fingers in front of him. “I’ve got a Poli Sci midterm due in two weeks. If I were to take this case, I’m not sure I’d have time to give it proper attention and study…” Sherlock let the idea trail off suggestively.

“Oh, I can write that for you!” Reginald exclaimed. His face lit up with a wide smile.

Sherlock responded with a wan, knowing smile. “Excellent. Now show me where they found him, and tell me everything you know about what happened.”

Reginald’s dead roommate was a senior classman named Benjamin Boscomb. Sherlock learned that Ben was a studious boy from the Brent borough. Well-liked and sociable, Ben had been pursuing a degree in Biology. According to Reginald, Ben had suffered from epilepsy but had never had an issue that Reginald had noticed. When Sherlock asked if he’d been seeing anybody, Reginald’s face darkened.

As he turned the key to open the dormitory he’d shared with Ben, he said the name “Sandy Truelove” like the name was an insult.

“Ah, so there’s a story there?” Sherlock said in a light tone. Relationships, especially other people’s, tended to bore him. They were all together too tedious to maintain the minutiae of.

Reginald snorted. “Story? She’s the one that murdered him.”

Sherlock raised his eyebrows at that, then stepped inside the dormitory. It seemed easy to tell two differing personalities lived there. On one side of the room, the bedsheets were haphazardly strewn and towers of textbooks served on either side as bedside tables. One of these sported a small bottle of pills, two ink pens, and a small wooden figurine of a duck. Sherlock noticed three semi-filled mugs of coffee lying in random places: atop a dresser, on the arm of a stuffed chair, on a writing desk atop a messy stack of papers. It smelled of stale coffee and body odor, as if the sheets had not been changed in some time.

The other side was everything this side wasn’t. The bed was neat, minus the pulled back comforter, with a small trunk lying at the foot on top of a linen-weave rug patterned with red and tan circles. The writing desk was clear, with a few papers neatly set to one side and a small rack that sorted various-sized envelopes. A small corkboard was set on the wall above the desk, with small notes pinned to it.

Sherlock turned back to the messier side of the room. “Did you or anyone else move any of his things?”

Reginald blinked. “How did you know this was his side?”

Glowering, Sherlock sighed. “Careful observation. Now, did anyone move anything here?”

“What did you observe?”

Sherlock let out a small growl of frustration. “Really, Reginald. If I have to take the time to explain every single detail I notice that you didn’t, we will be here until the end of the semester. So I won’t ask again: was anything moved?”

Reginald frowned and glanced around Ben’s side of the room. “No, I don’t think so. They–” his voice caught “–they took his body out last night, but I think that was it. Nobody’s come by to collect his things yet.” Sherlock could hear in his voice that he wasn’t looking forward to the encounter.

Sherlock moved to the desk pushed against the wall. Papers were strewn all over it in no discernable order. He pushed a few around, noting several academic papers, some handwritten letters from someone who liked to dot their I’s with hearts, a pharmaceutical receipt, and what looked like class notations scrawled in an unruly hand.

Next he strolled to the bed, taking in the messy sheets, the strand of blonde hair stuck to the side of the mattress, the deep indentation on the pillow where someone’s head had lain. The pill bottle perched on one of the book towers caught his eye and he picked it up, spilling a few into his palm. Most were small, white, and semi-flat, except for two that had a slight bluish tinge to them. Sherlock glanced at Reginald, but the other man was staring morosely at his own bed. With a deft movement, Sherlock slid the palmful of pills into his coat pocket, then examined the bottle. The writing on the outside of the bottle identified them as silver nitrate, prescribed by a physician named Whitlowe, from an office on Howland St.

“How do you know it was murder?”

“Ben had epilepsy since he was a little kid. He’s been taking medicine for it for as long as I’ve known him. We went to grade school together. He was religious about taking his pills. He knew what would happen if he didn’t. The police said he had a fit in the night and died from it. But I don’t believe that—those pills helped him. He stopped having fits when he took them and he never missed taking them.”

“Why do you think it was the girlfriend?” he asked in a distracted tone. His attention had turned to the bookshelf, which housed a fascinating array of textbooks. Almost none of them seemed to be pleasure reading.

“The night they said he died, I came back from a study group. I heard them arguing about something through the door. It sounded like she was really mad. I heard her tell him he would be sorry, and then I left. Spent the night with a mate of mine upstreet. When I came back in the morning, he was dead.”

“And you think that makes her the murderer?”

“Well, she was the last one to see him wasn’t she?” Reginald’s fists crept into fists at his side and a sharp line creased between his eyebrows as he scowled at Sherlock. Sherlock stared impassively back.

For a long moment the two stared at each other. Then, “You’d probably best get started on that paper,” Sherlock suggested as he moved toward the door. “I’m going to want to review it before I turn it in.”

“What’s this then? You’re leaving? Why?”

Sherlock was already out the door, but his voice floated back in answer. “I’ve got a doctor’s appointment!”

The hansom cab dropped Sherlock in front of a spare brick building. The office he wanted was on the second floor. When he stepped into the small waiting room, a sallow-faced woman behind the desk blinked up at him sleepily.

“Are you here for an appointment, love?”

Sherlock stepped forward with a winning smile. “Yes, madame, I am. I’d like to see Dr. Paul Whitlowe, please. I’m his–” he glanced at the wall clock behind the woman, which read five minutes until nine “–nine o’clock.”

The woman glanced down at a list in front of her. “Mr. Idleman?”

“Of course! May I go on back?”

She waved him through the door to the inner offices, where he found a young man about his age behind another desk.

“Hi, I’ve got a prescription question,” Sherlock began, as his shoulders slouched and his face softened to a meek expression. The dark-haired man behind the desk look up with a frown. “It’s about my brother’s pills.”

The other man stepped out from behind the desk. “Dr. Whitlowe is busy with a patient, but I can probably help. I’m his assistant, James Murdock.”

“Oh, excellent!” Sherlock gushed. He fished a few of the pills out of his pocket and held them out in his palm. “My brother Benjamin takes them for his epilepsy. Can you tell me what they are? He only has a few left and he sent me to get more. He said Dr. Whitmore prescribed them a few weeks ago.”

The man examined the pills. “The white ones are probably silver nitrate, but the blueish ones…we don’t prescribe those for epilepsy. You must have mixed up his pill’s with someone else’s.”

Sherlock frowned down at the pills as if just seeing them. “Oh dear. I could have sworn I got them from the same bottle… Are you sure these wouldn’t have been in there?” He peered curiously at James, gaging his reaction.

“Dr. Whitlowe wouldn’t give out the wrong medication.”

“…So it was Dr. Whitlowe who gave him his last set of medication?” Sherlock tried to make the question come across as offhanded, but something in his voice must have betrayed him.

James’s face seemed to harden, his eyes growing cold and distant. “I’m sure it was. What did you say the patient’s full name was? I can look up what he gets in his records.”

Five minutes later, Sherlock strolled out of Dr. Whitlowe’s office. When he reached the street, he glanced one way and casually pulled out the pill bottle James had given him. He pulled off the cap, poured some into his palm, and examined them. All small, white, and semi-flat. He nodded to himself as if this confirmed something, then put away the pills and bottle.

Stepping out toward the street, he waved his hand to flag down a cab. A moment later, one pulled by a dark-bay horse rolled to a stop in front of him and he got in.

“To the university,” he instructed.

Back on campus, he stopped by the Arts and Sciences hall, sat down on a bench, and waited. A half hour later, students began streaming out the door, chattering to each other in excited voices. Sherlock eyed them until he saw a red-haired girl in a short maroon skirt stride away. In her arms was a sketchbook. He hurried to catch up to her and slowed to match her pace. He noticed a pencil poked behind one ear.

“Sandy?” he inquired.

The girl gave a startled yip and jumped a few paces away. “Do I know you?” She peered at him with mingled doubt and suspicion.

“No, but I’m a friend of Ben’s.”

At the mention of his name, her face grew ashen and she looked down at the path under her feet. Her arms clutched the sketchbook tighter to her chest. “Oh. How did you know where to find me?”

“Ben had a note to meet you this morning at the Art Hall.”

“What do you want?” From the challenge in her voice, he thought it best to get to the point.

“Why did you two fight the other night?”

“If you’re such good friends, why didn’t he tell you?” she countered.

Sherlock gave her a thin smile. “Good question. But I’m trying to figure out something. No doubt you’ve worked out that it seems strange that he died shortly after having a spirited fight with you…?”

She stopped and looked at him with wide eyes. “You’re talking like I might have killed him. But I heard he died from an epilepsy fit. Natural causes, right?”

“Well, that’s what I’m trying to confirm.” The lie came easily to his lips. It was the end result, after all, that was most important. The truth, always the truth.

She looked at him a moment longer, then rolled her eyes. “It wasn’t so much a fight as a breakup.” At Sherlock’s raised eyebrows, she continued. “I broke up with him. He was… he wasn’t ever around. We didn’t go out, we didn’t do…anything.” A slight flush worked its way up her cheeks. “He was always studying. Studying, studying, studying! Even though he had one of the best GPAs on campus, it wasn’t enough. He wanted to be the best.”

“As confessions go, that one leaves something to be desired.”

Her flush deepened to bright scarlet circles in each cheeks. “I’m not confessing anything, you dolt! I didn’t kill him!”

“Are you quite sure about that? Sure you didn’t just get mad and grab a pillow and put it over his–”

Her hand snaked out and slapped his cheek. His face flared with pain, but all he did was clap a hand to his cheek and watch as she stalked away. He rubbed his cheek a few times, then reached up to rub the goose egg that had risen behind his ear.

“Why is it always the face?” he murmured to himself. His encounter with Sandy didn’t seem to have resolved anything. In fact, he actually felt more confused about this case than when he started. For the first time since he’d started taking on amateur student cases, he felt he’d reached a dead end.

So he did the only thing he could think to do. He set off at a brisk pace to the Psychology building, his overcoat flapping like a bedsheet behind him.

He made his way to the eighth room on the left, opened the door without knocking, and flounced inside. Behind the large oak desk, a man of about sixty leaned over a piece of paper with his pen. As his door slammed open, he glanced over the rims of his glasses and watched as Sherlock sank with a huff into the overstuffed leather chair that sat directly in front of the desk. He flung his legs over the arm of the chair and draped his upper body over the other arm so that he was staring at the ceiling.

“I’m stuck, Albert,” he moaned. The older man watched patiently. “I’ve checked out both options and neither of them showed me anything. Except more questions.”

Albert carefully set down his pen and went about straightening the papers on his desk. For several moments, the only sounds in the room was the swishing shuffle of papers being moved about, punctuated by the occasional whoosh of a drawer being pulled open, then shoved shut.

“Aren’t you going to ask about it?” Sherlock said.

“Narcissistic personalities cannot help but talk about themselves. All you have to do is wait.”

Sherlock raised his head and glared across the table. “Are you saying I’m a narcissist?”

Albert moved a book to the side, then looked at Sherlock and grinned. “I’m saying I’m a patient man. Now, what has you so, as you put it, stuck?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes toward the ceiling as he carefully chose his words. “Let’s say I have a hypothetical situation–”

“Like the last one with the married professor and the Dean of Engineering?” Albert interrupted.

“No. Well, yes, somewhat. Let’s say this situation is more about a dead person–”

“Dead person?” Albert scowled as his voice took on a hard edge. “Do you mean a corpse or a person who has died? Context is important, Sherlock, I’ve told you this.”

“A person who has died–”

“Let the police handle it then.” Albert’s tone indicated he was through discussing the matter.

“But they did,” Sherlock protested, sitting upright now. “And they botched it.”

Albert leaned forward and fixed Sherlock with hard eyes. “I indulge your ‘hypothetical situations’ because I know you like to fancy yourself a detective. And your hunches about certain issues are often correct. However, your hypotheticals rarely deal with things of consequence. But anything involving the death of a person is a serious thing, something you should leave to the professionals.”

“But that’s why I’m here,” Sherlock said in a pleading voice. “This is a serious thing but the professionals have it wrong. Hypothetically, of course.” He added the last part as a hasty afterthought.

But the iron look didn’t leave Albert’s expression. “You know I cannot advise you on things that have serious legal ramifications, Sherlock.”

“I just wanted your advice on a hypothetical situation, Albert. Come on, sir. You always help me find the thing I missed.”

Albert’s eyes measured Sherlock’s for a long moment, then he sat back with a sigh. “Ok. What options did you check out?”

“The pharmacist and the girlfriend. But now all I’ve got is a dead guy, who was fanatical about taking his meds, and a girlfriend who broke up with him because he didn’t make time for her. Hypothetically.”

“Why not?”

“Too busy studying.”

“That’s what she said?” Albert asked in a thoughtful tone. Sherlock nodded. “And you believe her?”

Sherlock screwed his face to one side. “Why would she lie?”

“People always lie, Sherlock. It’s our nature.” He leaned forward and picked up his pen. “Maybe he was a good student and maybe he wasn’t. Thank goodness there are records kept of such things.” His voice trailed away, and he glanced pointedly back up at Sherlock over the rim of his glasses.

Sherlock smirked. “And if that doesn’t work?”

“When solving a problem, I always find retracing my steps to be helpful. You never know what you missed the first time.”

The clerk in the records department owed Sherlock a favor from the time he helped her find out who stole her bicycle. She was able to show him the student files for Benjamin Boscomb. It turned out, that neither Reginald nor Sandy had given him the full story about Ben’s studying habits. From the grade records, Sherlock learned that not only was Ben a good student, he had one of the highest GPAs possible.

“He’s got some amazing numbers,” said the records clerk wistfully. She pushed her glasses back with a finger on the bridge. “Sad news about him. He was one of the three vying for egregia cum laude status.”

Sherlock looked up from the records and frowned at her. “I’ve never heard of that distinction.”

The clerk grinned at him. “Then you’ve never had the grades to know. It’s the highest distinction the University offers. Students can graduate summa cum laude by being in the top five percent of GPAs. But only one student can make egregia. That goes to the student with the highest GPA and most rigorous honors curriculum.”

“You said he was one of three?” The clerk nodded. “Who were the other two?”

The young woman dug into the folders filed in a desk drawer. Finally she produced a sheet of paper and handed it to him. “James Murdock and Conrad Bills.”

Sherlock smiled so widely at the clerk that she gave him a startled smile back. Then he dashed for the door and, with a flap of his coat, was gone.

“You’re welcome!” she called, leaning over the desk to yell after him.

One hansom cab ride later deposited Sherlock back on a front stoop on Howland St. This time, he charmed his way in as “Mr. Overholster” to the pretty, young woman behind the desk. When he strolled into the inner office, however, he nearly ran into an older man with a large, handlebar mustache wearing a white doctor’s coat. The white fabric gave stark contrast to the dark red patches on the man’s face. The sunburn on his forehead had begun to peel away, revealing peach-colored skin underneath, but the bridge of his nose and cheekbones were still an angry red. A stethoscope draped over the back of his neck like a snake. Across the left breast of the jacket, Whitlowe was stitched in curling script.

“Can I help you, young sir?” The doctor’s voice had a pleasant Scottish brogue to it.

“I’m here to check about my brother’s medication,” Sherlock began. “Benjamin Boscomb.”

Whitlowe’s expression didn’t change but the eyes grew flinty. “I’ve seen that family for generations now. Lad doesn’t have a brother.”

The matter-of-fact tone startled Sherlock enough that he paused and floundered as his mind raced for a response. “Right. Well. You’ve got me there. I’m actually investigating something about his death and–”

“The boy’s dead? Oh, my gracious.” The doctor’s shoulders sagged as he looked sadly at the countertop. “I’ve seen that boy since he was a wee ‘un. ‘S a shameful thing to have happen to that nice family.”

The emotion was too obvious, and therefore too discomforting, for Sherlock to address, so he skipped over the doctor’s words entirely. It was one reason those that knew him called him an unfeeling statue. “Can you identify something for me?” Sherlock fished in his pocket for the pale blue pills that had been mixed with Ben’s medication.

The doctor peered at them for a moment, then said, “Looks like thallium to me. But I’d have to look at the records to be sure.”

Sherlock nodded, then said in a bright voice, “How was the vacation?”

Whitlowe’s eyes lit up and he gave Sherlock a wide grin. “Wonderful! Took the family to stay with my sister in Cyprus. Beautiful weather there, not like the nasty cold stuff here. But, as you can see, I got a fair bit o’ sun while we were there.” He waved a careless hand in a circle around his head.

“When were you there?” Sherlock asked with a small arc of his eyebrow.

“Oh, the last few weeks. Just got back.”

“And who filled your orders while you were gone?”

Whitlowe glanced around, then gave Sherlock a rueful frown. “My assistant, James. But he doesn’t seem to be about right now. Should I have him get back to you about a question?”

“No, thanks. You’ve told me all I needed to know.” Sherlock nodded his head in thanks and left with a superior set to his lips.

Two days later, Sherlock slammed open Albert’s office door and sank into the armchair with a dramatic sigh. His legs were over one arm while his head and shoulders dangled over the other.

Albert slide a thick book into place on one of the bookshelves that lined the wall of his office. “Another hypothetical situation you got on your mind?” he asked without turning around.

“Hardly,” gloated Sherlock. “My mid-term Poli Sci paper’s done and it’s wonderful.”

“Proud of yourself, are you?” Albert crossed the room to his desk and sat in the chair behind it. He interlaced his fingers together and set his hands on the desktop while he regarded Sherlock.

“Very.” Sherlock smiled smugly at the ceiling. “I don’t even have to make any corrections to it.”

“Did you ever find the solution to that other thing you were wondering about?”

“Oh yes. I’ve decided recreational drugs are ok as long as you can find a reputable–”

“Not that one!” Albert hissed. “And I didn’t just hear that. I meant the one about the hypothetical dead person.”

“Oh. Yes to that, too. Turns out, he’d been poisoned. Thallium.”

Albert raised his bushy eyebrows in surprise. “That’s an interesting one. By whom?”

“His physician’s assistant. I figured out that he was vying with my dead guy for some top honors status. And then, when he lied to me about his boss having given the dead guy his medicine, I confirmed it when his boss revealed that he’d been on vacation when the dead guy had received the pills. Even though the pills were a slightly different color, I don’t think my dead guy ever noticed. I think that’s what the assistant was counting on. I mean, how often do you just dump a pill in your palm and swallow without looking, you know? Especially medication you’ve been taking for some time?”

“I’m apparently not as well-versed on drugs as you are,” Albert said in a dry voice.

“Anyway, so I got a few of the oafs at that miserable excuse for a police station to come with me when I confronted the assistant. He was quite happy to admit it to me, though he was less happy when he discovered the police had been waiting outside the door listening.” Sherlock snickered. “It was really pathetic how easily he gave it all up. I suppose narcissists just love to hear themselves talk, huh Albert?”

Albert cocked an eyebrow, but Sherlock didn’t notice as he rambled on.

“Thanks, by the way, for helping me out. With the hypothetical situation, of course.” Sherlock sat up and peered at Albert. “How did you ever become so adept at deduction?”

With a small smile, Albert gazed over the many volumes lining his bookcase shelves. “Some things you acquire with experience. Others are common sense.” His eyes shifted to Sherlock’s and they held a heavy knowledge that seemed to stretch beyond his years. “And as a psychologist, it is my business to know what other people don’t. Perhaps someday it’ll be yours, too.”

“That is truly amazing,” Sherlock said in a soft, awed voice.

“Not amazing,” Albert laughed. “Elementary.”

Total Writing Time: 3 hr., 45 min.

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September Stories (9/6)

So continues my September Stories project. If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-6

Dragon Eyes: An Unconventional Fairytale
By Danielle Davis

 Once upon a time, there was a princess whose parents locked her in a tower.

Once upon a time, there was a dragon that guarded a tower rumored to house a beautiful princess.

Once upon a time, these were different stories.

King Prince and his wife Mylena loved their daughter, who was born after a long period of doubt whether an heir would even be possible. From the start, she was like something from a fairytale. Her hair curved in long, silken waves the color of ripe chestnuts. Her figure was slight, her skin fair. Such were the luminous nature of her eyes, people several kingdoms over heard of the clearness of their hazel depths and how they sparkled with intelligence and wit.

What they didn’t know was that she could also turn into a dragon.

Well, that’s mostly true. She couldn’t change at will, but rather was forced, by whatever element of nature caused the transformation, into her dragon form for three consecutive months out of the year. Usually, this took place in the winter months, when her warm dragon’s hide favored the brittle kiss of ice and snow. But it meant that for every nine months of dancing and fostering and treatise counciling the kingdom enjoyed, there were three months of solitude. Visitors to the gate were turned away regardless of their standing. All but essential personnel were granted winter leave of their duties at the castle, to resume at the beginning of the new year. It was a tidy solution to a rather awkward problem.

However, it only worked for a few years. At first, keeping a dragon child secreted away in the castle, playing games and learning lessons from only a handful of personal servants and tutors, was easy. But as the child grew, so did her dragon form. So it was, on the eve of her ninth birthday, that she was sent to another area of the kingdom: in an isolated, abandoned castle that had once housed a minor Duke before his family fell ill to a plague. There she and her contingent of servants stayed for the winter months, until the spring buds showed their naked tips to the world and they were able to travel back to her parent’s castle.

So it went, for a little over a decade. Princess Sheena grew from a smiling, observant child into a beautiful, witty, young woman.

Well, a beautiful, witty young woman and a fantastically large dragon. Who learned to breathe fire. But more on that later.

What’s important to know now is that this…peculiarity…affected how her parents raised her. There were no lessons on proper harp playing, a common practice when it came to beguiling potential suitors. No embroidery, to sew favors to give to knights at tourneys. Her parents were careful to ensure there was no expectation on her part, as was instilled in the other princesses she knew, of snaring a likely Prince Charming of her own.

Their intent was benevolent—to save her from the disappointment she surely would face later. They could not, in good conscience, give her hand away to a man who would shortly discover exactly what he’d married come their first winter together. What that gave to Sheena, however, was a freedom of study unknown to the other princesses she knew.

Instead of learning the harp, Sheena decided she preferred the jingling johnny, a clashingly raucous percussion instrument she’d once seen a minstrel play at the Summer Fair. She built one herself using a sturdy staff and fixing all manner of tin items to it: small bells, rocks trapped between two tin plates…you get the idea. Instead of embroidery, she learned darning instead—an ironic joke considering her likelihood of becoming the Spinster Princess. She spat when she coughed up a snot during cold season. She played chess better than her father’s military general and argued politics with his councilors. She wore men’s riding pants when she charged out on the fat warhorse she’d begged off her parents because she loved his dapples.

And when suitors arrived, she behaved as she normally would. Over dinner, she asked their opinions on the likelihood of a peace treaty with the barbarian tribes of the south. She asked after their kingdom’s imports and offered suggestions for improving their economic leverage. Most got the hint before dessert. Those that didn’t got to enjoy her warbling rendition of “happy birthday” with jingling johnny accompaniment.

Then, with the last leaves of fall making their sad descent to the ground, she and her attendants bade her parents a tearful goodbye and left for the Iron Castle, so named for the iron bars that fortified the doors and lower windows.

What nobody counted on was how, well, tedious this whole procession began to be for Sheena. Year after year, it was always the same: come home, pretend to be a normal girl, then hide away in her tower. Transform, rinse, repeat.

And though she appeared to take great delight in besting suitor after suitor, it wore on her. Her parents were thrilled—it seemed their diffidence to the idea of finding a man had worked to everyone’s advantage. But she had a longing in her that she couldn’t quite name, a desire to actually find a like personality, to be able to debate about topics of interest with one who matched her enthusiasm for them. To find someone who accepted her as she was rather than what she pretended to be.

She also noticed, as she moved from teenager into young woman, certain changes in her dragon form that her human one didn’t share. Not the obvious ones, mind you. The internal ones. As a dragon, she retained the power of speech and intellectual reason—that remained about the same regardless of her form. But most of the emotions she felt with raw acuity as a girl—love, fear, sadness, hatred, and (most especially) boredom—were dulled to the merest afterthought when she was a dragon. All her dragon form cared for, foremost, were those emotions attributed to lesser creatures: hunger, territorialism, mating instinct. She could still feel the “human” emotions as a dragon, but their importance was minimal.

Inevitably, she learned the one major down-side to being a dragon: knights. One injudicious outing on her part—a brief foray into a nearby farm for a midnight snack of raw lamb chops—resulted in accidental discovery by the farmer’s son, who had gone out to make sure the cows had enough hay for the night.

Rumor being what it was, word spread about the dragon scourge that had taken up residence in the abandoned Iron Tower. And, since rumors reproduced like bunnies, there were soon others. The dragon guarded a princess trapped in the tower. There wasn’t one dragon, but five! That the dragon had slain three members of someone’s uncle’s second cousin’s daughter’s family.

The average number of knights she had to dispatch every winter was about five. The first one or two were usually rookies, newly knighted youths whose shiny armor reflected the sun from two counties away. These she usually ate before they even knew she was nearby. With a carefully angled aerial attack, she found she could eat both knight and horse in a single gulp, if the horse was smallish.

The third, and sometimes fourth, knights were usually more seasoned. Their armor had nicks and dings from a few significant battles, maybe they’d led a war party or two for their king. These knights put up more of a fight on account of being handier with a sword. Sheena learned that a few fireballs distracted them enough for her to unhorse them with her tail and then swallow them whole.

The last few knights of the season were the worst. These were the battle hardened warriors. Those whose armor had faded to a dull glint from the countless battles they’d fought. After nearly losing her head (literally) to a fellow calling himself Sir Thomas the Bold, she learned to blast them with fire before they got close enough to use their swords. Under a steady stream of flame, they usually cooked within their metal boxes in under two minutes. She did always like her meat well-done.

The year Princess Sheena turned twenty, though, everything changed.

“Regina, can you bring me another of those memoirs from the library? I’ve finished the one on King Balgus the Huge last night.” Sheena’s voice rumbled through the room like the sound of distant thunder, making Regina flinch. “Sorry,” Sheena grimaced. Well, she grimaced as much as her sinuous neck would allow.

Regina gave her a dark look but put down the tray of smoked meat she’d brought and turned to leave. “Mistress, you read faster than I would have given you credit for, given how small those pages are.”

Sheena grinned, revealing her double set of needle-like teeth. Her long, black tongue lolled from the side of her mouth. “I learned a new trick for turning the pages. If I just hold the covers with my claws and blow gently to one side, I can turn the page. It helps me read much faster than before.”

With a laugh, Regina’s dark look turned to an affectionate glare. “At this rate, you’ll run through the entire library before December!”

“Ugh.” Regina sent a disappointed puff of dark smoke from her nostrils. “That would make for a tedious winter.”

Regina grinned and left the room. Aside from her, Sheena only took two other attendants these days: a cook and a tutor. Since both of them were out on errands for the afternoon, Sheena was surprised to turn towards the rock slab that served as her bed to find a young knight standing in the middle of her room.

Sheena reared back. The movement brought her head several feet off the ground—and out of reach of the knight’s sword, though it remained sheathed at his hip—and close to the ceiling. Her neck coiled into a curving S shape as she flexed the muscles along her back to flair the sharp scales at the base of her neck and shoulders. Though most of her was covered in tiny, fine scales as soft as hide, her protective scales were thicker and more rounded, able to deflect a sharper blow that might otherwise break the skin elsewhere on her body. She flexed her scythe-like claws and fixed the knight with her best glare.

“Who are you?” she demanded. When she didn’t try to soften it, the natural volume of her voice made the furniture in the room tremble.

The knight remained in place, silently regarding her as he leaned slightly back to take in her full height.

“Answer me!” She stomped one foot and rattled the protective scales threateningly. The knight didn’t move, even as small pebbles rained down on his armor with small pings.

Sheena rolled her eyes and snorted, which sent the frills at the back of her jaw fluttering. “This is the part where you draw your sword, genius,” she said in a stage-whisper.

The knight slowly reached up and slid his helmet off his head. He stared at her with wide, wonder fill eyes. An unruly lock of dark hair fell over his forehead and he brushed it back as if it barely registered. “I had heard tales of you, you know. How fearsome your teeth. How hot your fire. How querulous your temper—“

“Querulous, me?” she interrupted. She snaked her head down so that it was at eye-level with him. “Are you sure you heard that right?”

The knight paused. Even with that cow-like expression of confusion on his face, she had to admit he was good-looking. Not that it mattered.

“I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard.” He lowered his gaze and frowned, thinking. “I mean, it sounded similar…” He looked up and met her gaze directly. She marveled at the lack of fear and guile she saw there. “What sounds like ‘querulous’ but means ‘dangerous’?”

For a moment, she wasn’t sure how to respond. Was he mad? Didn’t he realize he was staring down a dragon that had not only spoken to him, but which had killed several men before him? But he continued to stare at her, with a little frowny line between his eyes that she found endearing.

“Perilous?” she suggested.

He clapped his gloves together and pointed at her. “That’s it! For some reason, I always confuse those two.”

She stared at him for a long moment. “Right… Well, let’s rewind this a bit and get back to my original question. Who are you?”

“Gareth.” He said the name in an offhanded tone, as if it were unimportant. He was still staring at her with a mixture of awe and fascination.

Sheena rose to her full height and fixed him with her most menacing glare. She prepared to launch into her speech, the one she used for the more experienced knights in the hopes she could dissuade them from a fight. So far, it had worked on two of them. “Well, Gareth, I will give you one chance to leave without issue. If you choose not to heed my warning, I can guarantee your death will be most… Why are you looking at me like that?”

He shrugged and grinned at her. “Are you sure the rumor I’d heard wasn’t actually ‘garrulous’?”

She lowered her head again to his level. “You have got to be the rudest knight I’ve ever met. How did you ever make it to knighthood?”

His grin didn’t falter. “I kept my mouth shut mostly.” She noticed his eyes were blue as a summer lake and sparkling with mischief.

“I doubt that’s an ability you possess,” she muttered and huffed a dark cloud of smoke into his face.

He twisted away, hacking and waving to clear the air around his face. “You surprised me. I expected you to ask why I was here.”

Sheena gave the best approximation to a shrug her dragon form allowed. “Why would I ask that? Past experience would tell me you’re here to kill me.”

“That would be a most unwise thing to do, I think.” He turned away from her and strolled around the room, pulling his armored gloves off as he spoke. It was the first time a knight had ever—knowingly—turned his back to her. “I imagine you could kill me faster than if I jumped from this tower.” His fingers grazed over the periwinkle tulle that formed the canopy of her bed. He made an appreciative noise and turned his attention to a painting on the wall.

“Care to get to the point anytime soon? I have a Latin lesson in a half hour.” Sheena let him hear the irritation in her voice, but inwardly she was intrigued. This had gone like no other meeting she’d ever had.

Instead of answering, he pointed to the picture. “This you?” He looked over his shoulder at her with raised eyebrows, waiting.

The painting showed her, sitting demurely on a chair with her body turned away from the viewer. But her face curled back over her shoulder to return the look. The painter had captured her eyes almost perfectly so they dominated the entire image with a piercing gaze.

She gave him a suspicious look, then nodded.

He looked back to the picture, then turned and fixed her with an appraising look. “I think I like you this way better, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

Her eyes widened in shock. For a moment all she could do was stare at him. Then she moved with the liquid grace of a predator to stalk a circle around him. “Explain yourself.”

“You’re certainly a beautiful woman, don’t get me wrong. But the eyes. In that picture. They don’t look any different on you as a dragon. But they suit you better this way. At least as a dragon, you don’t have to hide what you are.”

Despite herself, she was curious. “And what is that?”

In a soft voice so low she had to ease closer to hear, he said, “Wild. Fierce. Maybe a little bit feral around the edges. But smart. And brave. And…” He looked down again, struggling to find the words. “Oh, I can’t define it. It’s just…as a girl, those eyes make me think someone’s hiding on the inside, that there’s more to her than I see on the surface. As a dragon, your appearance personifies what I feel like might be hiding there.”

She gave him a long look and saw something similar within his eyes. There was a look of wildness there, too. Something unconventional. Something searching. Something exotic, but at the same time familiar. Something that beckoned her. Something waiting for the right person to unlock the secrets there.

“Tell me,” she said in a coy voice. “What are your views on the prospect of the local kingdoms expanding their trade options with the southern nomads?”

Gareth thought for a moment. She watched the ideas flicker within his eyes as he formed his answer. After several long moments, he met her eyes. “I think it would be a wise move if we could get their guarantee of safe passage through their territories. They have a textiles reach to the east that we haven’t been able to extend, no matter how hard we’ve tried, and we have an agricultural advantage they might appreciate given their nomadic culture.”

Sheena bared her teeth in a wide smile. Gareth returned it. “I don’t know how you got up here, Gareth Silvertongue, but I hope you’ve given some thought as to how you’re going to get back down. If you’ll excuse me, I have a Latin lesson to prepare for.” Still smiling, she turned to leave.

“Wait!” Gareth called. “Can I come see you again?” The naked hope in his voice made her heart turn over.

“I won’t be here. My transformation ends in a few days. Then I’ll return to my human form and my parent’s castle. Since you prefer my dragon form, I’m sorry to say I won’t be in it for quite some time. Much longer than a knight like you cares to wait.”

In a gentle voice heavy with emotions she didn’t dare name, she heard him say, “My cares are my own business.” When she reached the doorway and glanced back over her shoulder, he was already gone.

The disappointment she felt surprised her, but she knew it was for the best.

The next day, she woke to find a white rose lying on the windowsill. Around the middle, a silk ribbon attached the rose to a note. In a simple, unadorned hand she read: You aren’t the only one who isn’t what they seem on the surface. See you in a few days.

Total Writing Time: 3 hr., 6 min.

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