Category Archives: Suspense

A SMALL BLACK CLOUD

                                                         A short story by Sha’Tara

Judy awoke from a pleasant “beach” dream and pushed her big fluffy tomcat off the bed, shut off the radio alarm and mechanically tuned it to her favourite morning station, CKRY. She had thought how funny the acronym was at first, but got used to it, and the jokes that went with it. She slipped a sheer nightgown over her tall, slim frame and smelled the aroma of freshly brewed coffee that filled her apartment. She enjoyed her simple, uncomplicated, automated life. Her job paid little more than minimum wage, but she had few problems handling it, especially since she finally got rid of Mario. For a moment, a small black cloud filled her mind, and her heart constricted, but the feeling passed and she fed Tiny his morning allowance, enough to satisfy a hungry Rottweiler, she thought.

She liked her one bedroom condo apartment.  The building was on a slightly elevated part of town, her apartment facing west giving her a decent view out over the bay. A few large evergreens gave a feeling of privacy.   Her neighbours were quiet and she hardly ever had to speak to them, except at the monthly strata meetings.

She parted the blinds on the kitchen window and scanned the view.  It was still and cold in a harsh grey, smoggy morning light.  Even under the snow cover of the condo parking lot, frost coated the windshield of her robin-egg blue Mietta.

She sipped her coffee while brushing her long blond hair, her left hand alternating between the cup and a bowl of fruits and cereal she was pensively mixing. Everything was so normal, so wonderfully normal. She vaguely heard a comment on the radio about an accident in town, as she waited for her music, the old love songs of the Sixties and Seventies she enjoyed so much. It seemed the interruption lasted longer than usual, but the news held no interest for her. Her job was only a couple of blocks away, at a small distribution company, so she never drove or took the bus. Road problems seldom caught her attention and her Mietta stayed under cover except for weekend shopping or the occasional spin down Shoreline Drive.

She enjoyed her walk to work, and often, another woman, Samantha, who worked at the local paper further down the block, would walk with her as far as her office. The women sometimes invited each other over for coffee, or for dinner.   Both of them were now avowed singles, having bravely fought their version of the battle of the sexes… and won, or so they thought. For the time being, men were off their list. They had discovered that cats, especially tomcats, made much better, warmer friends, had a good deal less expectations and were definitely less expensive to maintain.

“…It wasn’t until four this morning that a work crew discovered bodies wedged down a sewer manhole at 7th and Balsam. We advise commuters to avoid that area, as police and other emergency crews are still there, cleaning up and investigating. … and now, for more of your favourite songs… this is CKRY, YOUR GOOD MORNING RADIO… “Bridge Over Troubled Water, I will lay me down..”

Judy smiled through her morning preparations for work.   She deliberated over her day’s dress, and makeup. She liked to change her appearance and paid a great deal of attention to her mood swings.   She followed these with her own body artistry so she wouldn’t feel ill at ease, or out of sorts with herself for the rest of the day. She petted Tiny as he rubbed against her leg to make him understand he’d have to spend the day outside. Of course, he loved it outside, but he had to pretend he didn’t. There would be a lot of complaining as he finally jumped through the opened window onto the patio.

There would be birds to watch at the feeder the neighbours so diligently filled every morning.   Who knows, maybe a careless one would provide some extra protein today, and the woman next door would chase him angrily off her own balcony, providing some excitement… Birds could be so incredibly stupid, and humans so entertaining when properly motivated. He stretched and meowed loudly. When Judy saw his claws dangerously near her wooden rocking chair, she said “No!” and “OK boy, time for you to go out.” Tiny could have shrugged as he smiled inwardly… a very sarcastic cat smile. Yes, humans were predictable. One only had to know how to move and guide them to do what one wanted. After all, why do they have those hands and feet, processed foods, sliding windows and warm, soft laps, if not to serve cats? Tiny had learned, early in life, the incredible power he possessed in his long, soft grey fur, his deep voice and his well-groomed claws. He believed he could move mountains with these, and he did: mountains of human emotion.

Today would be green.   A light green dress, green shoes, green scarf, and her green coat, which was a darker shade, but that didn’t matter.   She topped herself with a wide green woolen toque and felt quite ready to face the world.

“… Teenagers looking for a place to have a smoke on their way to school discovered bodies in an abandoned warehouse at the east end of town near the river. . Three men and two women were bludgeoned and left to freeze to death on the floor of the old building. Police are now investigating in force as fear is mounting that a crazed killer, or gang of killers, are loose in the town – this is CKRY.”

Again, Judy paid scant attention. This was a big city, and things happened all the time.  It had nothing to do with her, though it probably meant that Samantha would already have been called to work to deal with the news. Oh well, she would call her later and find out how it all went.   Quarter to nine, and the pale sun was just rising over the city. It would be a still day, no wind and only a few white, wispy clouds. Good. She hated walking in storms anyway.

“…Stay tuned for more news as our roving reporter brings you the latest in the killing rampage… this is CKRY, YOUR GOOD..”

She turned off the radio, picked up her bag, set the alarm, locked her door carefully, and went out into the cold morning air. She smelled the usual mixture of smog, exhaust fumes, sulfur, garbage and other unnatural substances which always assailed her nostrils until she got used to them. She heard some distant sirens of emergency vehicles but gave them no heed.   In the still, cold morning, everything was normal.

There was excitement at work over the night’s happenings, but she couldn’t get into it either. Why should she? It had nothing to do with her, absolutely nothing. She turned on her computer and began to tally, add, subtract, make sense of the orders, send letters, receive e-mail, and pass on the messages to the various department heads. It was a small local delivery trucking firm, so her work load was not so much heavy as it was varied.   She often thought of herself as a Girl Friday in that place.

“Hey Judy: did you hear about last night?   They’ve found at least nine bodies by now, all killed in the weirdest ways. The funny thing is, there’s no rhyme or reason to the killings: they’re not prostitutes, or street people, or people of any particular category; they’re just people. One of them was a young boy, about 12. Most of them were just people driving home, or walking on the street, or so it seems.   What do you think of that?”

Well, Frank was always one to ask dumb questions and enjoyed getting people riled up.   For a brief moment, she wondered why these “killings” had no effect on her, why she didn’t care, absolutely didn’t, but quickly dismissed the thought. After all, she had her own life, her own problems, and had to remain aloof in order to keep it together. She had worked hard to reach this point of semi independence, and she wasn’t going to let anyone or anything rob her of her accomplishments.

“Look Frank, I don’t care, OK? It’s got nothing to do with me. It’s just one of those freak things that happen in big cities, and this is a big city, Frank. Why don’t you take care of that order for McGraw’s Deli in your hand instead of wasting my time with speculation on accidents and the like? They have people paid to do that: police, FBI, Homeland Security, newscasters, analysts, shrinks, preachers, columnists, lawyers, the government… They won’t fill our orders, so let’s do our job and let them do theirs.”

“Hey, who pissed in your cornflakes this morning?”

“No one. I just can’t get personally involved in other people’s problems, OK?   I’ve got work to do and a life of my own. Why don’t you get one!”

Crestfallen, definitely resentful, Frank left. She felt so much better. Men!   They think they can come on to a girl by frightening her and offering protection. If she falls for it and lets the fear of being alone get to her, she may accept the not so innocent offer of an escort home, or an offer of a date… yeah, right. Well, not this girl. Been there, done that! Definitely don’t work!

From there on the day progressed normally.   The news spread, and there were more versions all the time.  It all exploded on social media.  One story was of alien abductions and experimentations. Organs were missing from the bodies, and they had all been killed in mysterious ways unknown to the experts in the field. Another was of an Oriental gang of trained martial arts experts led by a madman who wanted to take over all the cities of the west through fear and blackmail…  Some more out there talked of zombies and vampires.  Of course the main thread on mainstream media was the usual: terrorists.  When all else fails, blame terrorists.  Give them a race, a religion, a cause, make up names and invent faces if needs be and spin away.

“Ridiculous!” Judy thought as her day ended and she was putting on her shoes and coat.

She stepped outside.  The weather had not changed. Everything was still.  Even the sound of traffic seemed hushed.  The smog hung a little heavier at the end of the day. She walked home briskly, hoping to meet with Samantha, but did not. She was surprised, when she came in, that Tiny was not at the window, but he would be. She changed and prepared dinner. She set the table, looked out and called Tiny, then called Samantha.   No answer.

Strange. Oh well, life goes on. Tiny is a tomcat, he’ll return. Samantha is probably working late at the paper. I know, I’ll call the paper. If she’s not there, I can leave a message.

A man answered her call: “Citadel News Room,   Jerry speaking. Can I help you?”

“Yes, I was wondering if Samantha was still at work?”

“Who wants to know?”

“Her friend, Judy Simpson, from the condos.”

After a pause, the man spoke: “I’m sorry to have to tell you this miss Simpson, but Samantha was one of last night’s victims.”

“Oh!” and she hung up slowly. Tiny was scratching furiously at the window. She noticed her hand was shaking a little as she let him in.   She sat down to finish her meal.

She would run a nice hot bath after the dishes were put in the dishwasher, and everything would be normal again… Absolutely everything.

Interplanetary Intercourse

“You know our first navigator’s got to be a girl who will—”
“She will be,” Rydra said. (Babel-17, Samuel R. Delaney)

I’m not asking the world be sane,
Pointing at his naked loin, she says,
nor am I asking you be either:
That would be complete waste.
All I want now is sex from you,
Great sex, if you can manage.
She fondles him, watches him grow:
It has potential, much, I like.

In turn he ogles her, full taut nipples
Pushed out from cone-shaped breasts,
Pointing to either side of his face.
With hungry fingers he reaches,
Touching, rubbing, twisting lightly
Keeping his eye on that serene face
And on her legs: they were swift,
And deadly, the Martian women.

But she said, she liked.  It was
What they’d call on earth, an omen.
She wouldn’t hurt him, her desire
Would rule her movements and
It was for him at the moment. Yet
I am insane, she knows, he thought
To enter the Martian’s cabin, naked.
What will she do, once done with me?

Fear washes pale beneath red lust,
Ask her, it said, ask her, before
You bed her and she takes your mind.
Is she a member of the stranglers?
Would she kill him to complete
Her needed orgasm before orbit?
He’d heard some needed it,
It opened their minds to space
It’s how they became navigators
So went the myth, never dispelled. 

Bullshit, he hears himself say,
She’s just a woman, needy like me
Naked, like me.  In lust like me. 
He reaches his muscular arms
Full around her slim, firm waist
Draws her tightly to himself,
His breathing loud, his heart a hammer
His chest pushes against her
He enters her and both scream.

Ah, best I’ve ever had, he hears.
Are they his words, in his head
Unrehearsed – is he alive then?
They are her words from her lips:
Alive, unrehearsed, spoken to his ear.
You please me immensely earth man,
You live for me. I’ll want you again.
Now I must connect to navigation:
We depart, quick, do not say a word,
I mark you, I find you, later.

 

The Ice Queen

(micro fiction)

It was three PM when he finally spotted her, the first time he’d seen her since their brief, angry exchange in the park a week before.  She was standing inside a bus stop, across the two-lane street.  Today the ice queen had long dark brown hair that cascaded down over the broad collar of a light blue Fall coat that came down mid-thigh.  Even with the wig and the makeup she could never hide from him.  He was sure he could always recognize her and when a flutter of doubt crossed his mind he summarily dismissed it.  He wasn’t going to cross the street to be absolutely certain.  The way she held her left hand over her shoulder bag told him she was packing and ready for any sort of trouble.  He’d seen her in action too many times to doubt her speed and accuracy with the 45.  If she spotted him coming across the street, and she would, he wouldn’t make it halfway.

He was leaning on an oak tree, partially hidden, far enough to remain safe.  Though in the moment he utterly hated her, he couldn’t help admiring the tall, slim, straight-backed form and the long bare legs that set his heart pumping and managed to shatter his confidence.  

He was safe right where he was.  This was she, the ice queen; he could sense the aura of her.  She was danger, like a wave pulsing across the street, bouncing off the store front behind him; the worst kind of danger.  Danger by the feelings she engendered in all men.  Danger by association.  Danger by attraction.  Danger by profession.   

The bus arrived, finally.  He stared hard between gaps in traffic but didn’t see her get on board.  The bus left an empty stop.  She was gone, heading south, towards the port.  He tried to see in his mind who was waiting there for her.  He knew, of course, there was someone, but who?  If it was the colonel then she had taken the assignment.  From the marina a fast cruiser would take her around past the point and from there she’d scuba dive and swim to land, on the far side of the border.  If she got caught he’d never see her alive again.  Such a waste.  Such a stupid waste.  He hated himself for refusing to go on assignment with her but he was sick and tired.  He had lost his taste for the excitement of her cat and mouse games.  But not for her.  He was in double jeopardy: he both hated and loved her with equal passion, one never overcoming the other unless or until she died. 

She’d told him in the park, “If you’re not with me, you’re against me.”  When she looked at him, he’d shaken his head and he’d felt the icy hatred she spat in the one word:  “Coward!” and walked away.  That was the last word they had spoken.

 “I better make that call,” and he pulled out a cell phone, hit a button, spoke one word: “Elk” and casually threw the phone under the wheels of a passing truck. 

Then it hit him as hard as if he’d walked into an on-coming car:  Misdirection.  She never got on the bus.  But the message was sent, the phone was destroyed and a totally innocent girl would go to her death tonight because of him, because he didn’t cross the street; because he really was a coward, not because she tricked him. 

He threw up in the gutter.

 

Liza’s Invisible Man

[a short story, by Sha’Tara]

For those who know me, this needs no introduction.  For those who don’t know me, I’m the recluse, the quiet one, the dreamer.  I live on the edge of the worlds that have made a pretence of harbouring me, and I do not trust them.  I trust nothing that pretends to be what it isn’t and if life has taught me anything, it’s that everything is pretence.  Fake.  Lies.  Definitely not conducive to trust.

But now, imagine the opposite; that everything was trustworthy, safe, true, real.  Can you imagine the extreme boredom of such a condition?  Unthinkable to me.  And this brings me to talk about Elizabeth, or Liza as she was then known.

Liza was a bit crazy.  Some said it was because both her parents died in jail and that her adoptive parents should have gotten the same.  I only knew the bits about her I got to know during our last two years of high school.  We sat together sometimes during lunch and compared notes.  We talked about boyfriends, well, as I remember she didn’t say all that much.

“C’mon Liza, who is he?” I pushed her once.

“Not that it’s anybody’s business, but he’s the invisible man.  Much too old and sophisticated to be around here.  He’s self assured, rich but not ostentatious.  He can be funny at times.  But I like him best when he’s being serious.”

“Oh!  And the name of this paragon of manhood?”

“He doesn’t have a name.  A name would spoil him, it, the scene, can’t you see that?  An invisible man with a name?  That would make him visible.”

“So who is it? Who?”

“He’s the invisible man.  Why do you want to know more?”

“It’s natural curiosity, Liza.  Maybe… maybe he doesn’t exist at all except in your mind, yes?  Is that why you won’t tell me who he is?  He’s a figment of your imagination?”

“Is that what you think?  That I’m hallucinating a man?  That I couldn’t get one any other way?”  She got up, threw her lunch wastes in the garbage bin and walked away without turning her head, her pony tail swinging wildly as she walked out of the cafeteria.

That was the last time we talked.  She avoided me after that and frankly I was relieved.  That was too close for comfort.  I’m a book person.  Other peoples’ private lives might contain a certain aura of mental interest but not for very long.  Boredom sets in.  I prefer action romance to every day middle class lives of frustrated teens with bad sexual experiences or hearing about their parents’ failed lives.  Jesus, listen to me.  Seventeen and as jaded as an old spinster.  “Oh Jane, you’ve got the brains, the marks, you can be whatever you want.  A librarian?  There’s no future in that, haven’t you heard of computers?  By the time you’re thirty libraries will exist in the cloud and a book will be something you go see in a museum, or in someone’s collection.  Really Jane, where’s the drive?”  It was that line, or similar lines, that followed me through high school.  But what better company can one have but books?

About a month after the cafeteria incident, Monday morning, I came in to an announcement for a general meeting for the entire school in the auditorium.  Bother, I hate these things.  Hired a new business manager?  The grade eleven Physics teacher quit?  The principal got an award for saving a few thousand dollars for the school by closing down the music department? New security measures to be taken?  Whatever it is, it’s the last place I want to go to, but no choice, the hallways were blocked and we were all ushered into the auditorium.

We took seats and we waited, nervously, impatiently and noisily.  I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to be there.  Finally our vice principal, Mr. Morgan, came on the stage and asked for silence.  After some time the room quietened completely.

“Students of Eleanor Pringle High, I’m sad to announce that I have some bad news for you, for all of us.  One of your classmates, fellow student, Elizabeth Raynor was found murdered in Sullivan park early this morning.  This news was kept from the media until this announcement could be made.  Counselling services for those close to Miss Raynor are available through the office.  Any of you who wish to deal with this in your own way by taking the day off may do so.  Normal classes to resume tomorrow morning.  Again, the principal, myself and all the staff offer their sympathies for your loss, our loss.”

After dismissal I was accosted by Brian Lopez.  “Hey Jane, you used to talk to Liza at lunch.  Do you remember her talking about an invisible man?”

“Yeah, sure, why?”

“Did she ever describe him, like what he looked like, give you his name?”

“She wouldn’t talk about it, said he had to remain invisible.”

“That’s it, see?  Yesterday around lunch time we met at the Subway in the mall.  We sat together for a snack and talked.  She was excited, said she was meeting her invisible man in the park that evening.”

The Cursed Year, the Year of Bliss

 

[short story, by Sha’Tara –  part 2]

“Mark, my Editor”

The hours to Edmonton passed quickly.  At every stop I got off the bus to stretch and use the facilities.  In the eating places I met new passengers and sat with different people each time.  I listened a lot, asked a lot of questions.  I’d never been anywhere and what I knew of the world all came from books, from school, from hearsay and from stolen moments reading dad’s old newspapers and magazines.  I found this learning from people’s experiences a truly amazing process.  So much easier to visualize, to remember.

It was in the last leg of the journey that I got the idea I’d like to be a reporter.  To gather stories from people and publish them, in my own words.  My Own Words.  Something I could call mine.  That’s when I realized I’d never actually owned anything; that everything I’d ever had was stuff bought for me, or handed down to me and any of it could be taken from me and replaced with whatever someone else thought suitable, or good enough.

Edmonton.  For the time being I lived on a borrowed name, Helene (pronounced “Elennay” but of course pronounced “Helen” by Canadians) Kristofson and used money given to me but which I hoped some day soon to be able to repay.  I decided then that I would keep my new identity and earn my place in the world.  Edmonton would give me my beginning.  And it did.  I found a magazine to work for.  It dealt mainly with agricultural issues and farmers’ concerns.  I was well versed in those: they’d been my bread and butter since I’d stopped suckling.  I made a good interviewer.  The novelty of a young, pretty and knowledgeable reporter was a great asset.  And I could write.  In my tiny basement apartment I created a working office space, bought a portable typewriter and drove myself to type ever faster.

Helene Kristofson had her name in print and her first stories were read and commented on.  HK avoided political and religious issues and stuck to the middle of the road and the issues she wrote about.  HK was loaned an old Pontiac flat top six to drive around.  HK also paid back the money she’d received from the Hendersons.  Buying her freedom: my freedom.

Months followed in quick succession.  September.  Golden colours, dried grasses and stubbled fields.  Mark, my editor invited me to his place to discuss my latest piece on wheat pricing and quotas and the plight of small farmers.  “A bit on the radical side, Helen.  Needs looking at before I can push for publication.”  I drove to his home, a small bungalow near the North Saskatchewan River.  When I rang the bell he came to the door… with only a pair of shorts on.  I hesitated but he explained I’d caught him exercising.  With my head filled with my story I went in and sat at the kitchen table while he went to get dressed.  I spread my notes out and prepared to defend my piece.

Mark returned, having added a shirt to his ensemble and holding a bottle of scotch and two glasses. “May as well get started properly.  With or without ice, Helen?”

“Sorry, I don’t drink Mark.  I thought I made that clear already?”

“Well yeah, on business.  But this is both business and pleasure.  And you don’t have to worry about driving back – you can sleep here tonight.  Got a couple of friends coming over with their dates so we can have a bit of a party and they’re bringing the shit.  You need a party, Helen.  You need to relax and enjoy yourself.  A pretty girl like you needs a life.”

A dozen bells started chiming in my head.  He’d set me up.  This wasn’t about my work, this was about sex.  Until now I’d managed OK.  The men I interacted with were conservative farmers with a sense of propriety.  And the young guys, though quick to make verbal advances had kept their hands to themselves.  I’d felt safe in my new life.  Now the whole thing came tumbling down and I was back in that blood-filled bed and a trusted man turned into a rapist.  I felt myself shaking in both, fear and anger.  I felt like a cornered beast again.  I could feel my face changing countenance.  I wanted to be old and gray and wrinkled.  At the same time I wanted to be an avenging she-bear.

I wasn’t dressed seductively, just casually.  Jeans and closed neck sweater and sneakers.  Nothing sexual about that.  My very dark hair as usual just tied back – in short, I was dressed for work.  But it doesn’t matter, does it.  He was undressing me with his eyes and he had that predatory look I knew too well.  I knew he would not let me leave freely: he’d grab me, hold me and try to talk me into the sex and if that didn’t happen, he’d just force it on me then try to laugh about it and offer me a couple of stiff drinks to smooth things over.  Then he’d say, well now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at your notes, have a few more cocktails and you can sleep over.

I knew all this in a split second.  So I stared back at him and asked,

“Where’s your wife, Mark?”

“She’s gone to see her mother in Grand Prairie.  It’s her mother’s birthday this weekend and she’s spending a couple of weeks vacationing with her parents – Banff, that sort of thing.”

“So why didn’t you go with her?”

“That’s the whole point, isn’t it.  Well, I wanted to have some time with you, babe.  I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I like the idea of you and me.  Maybe a whole lot of you and me.  There’s a promotion in there somewhere for you too.”

I’m sixteen but he thinks I’m eighteen, so part of this is my fault.  In his eyes I’m an adult, and I’m legal.  He can have me and he’d be pretty safe on any rape charges if I squealed.  He’d divorce his wife and claim that he’d asked me to marry him and I’d accepted.  That, in his eyes, and those of the courts, would make the whole transaction quite moral and normal.

C’mon girl play ball, don’t be a stick in the mud; don’t pretend to be a sore looser, you know you want it and you know it’s how it works.  Words came pouring out of my mouth, words I must have heard somewhere, or read; words I’d never use or thought I ever could use.

“Fuck you Mark!  Fuck you and the horse you rode in on!  You make me sick!”  And I spun around to the counter, slipped a long-blade knife from the block and held it to him.

“Come near me and I skewer you.  Don’t try me on this.  See this shaking?  That’s not fear of you Mark, that’s me trying to control myself from going for you.  I’m on a coiled spring right now and if you move any closer to me, that’s going to let go.  I don’t care what happens to me after but you won’t be around to see it.  Just let me gather my stuff and leave.”

“What are you, a fucking dyke?  Wow, I sure misjudged you.  I thought you were a team player.  You cold bitch, you’re fired!”

“You can’t fire me, I quit.  I quit the moment you opened that door and stood there practically naked with your bulge out.  Animals, you’re all fucking animals and I’m not afraid of gutting an animal.  I was raised on a homestead.”  I noticed that I wasn’t yelling, just loud, but firm.

The knife felt smooth and balanced in my left hand.  At that crazy crossing I wanted him to move towards me, to lunge, and to shut up so we could settle it with action, not words.  I’m sick of words, I heard myself thinking, I want action.

On impulse, I stuck the knife point down into the beautiful finished wood surface of the table, turned my gaze from him, collected my notes and stuffed them in my leather briefcase on the chair beside me.  Then I stared him down, pulled the knife out and backed out to the door with the knife held for action.

“I’ll throw this out when I’m leaving the driveway.  And for your sake, think this: ‘this never happened’ and for me, it didn’t.”

[end part 2: Mark, my editor]

A Small Black Cloud

 

                                        A short story by Sha’Tara

Judy awoke from a pleasant “beach” dream and pushed her big black longhair tomcat off the bed, shut off the alarm and mechanically tuned the radio to her favourite morning station, CKRY. She had thought how funny the acronym was at first, but got used to it, and the jokes that went with it. She slipped a sheer nightgown over her tall, slim frame as she smelled the freshly brewed coffee. She enjoyed her simple, uncomplicated, automated life. Her job paid little more than minimum wage, but she had few problems handling it, especially since she finally got rid of Mario. For a moment, a small black cloud filled her mind, and her heart constricted, but the feeling passed and she fed Tiny his morning allowance, enough to satisfy a hungry Rottweiler.

It was still and cold outside. Frost covered the windows of her car in the condo parking lot. She liked her one bedroom pastel decorated apartment in the condos in a slightly elevated west part of town. A few large evergreens gave a feeling of privacy. Her neighbours were quiet and she hardly ever had to speak to them, except at the monthly strata meetings.

She sipped her coffee while brushing her long blond hair, her left hand alternating between the cup and a bowl of fruits and cereal she was pensively mixing.   Everything was so normal, so wonderfully normal. She vaguely heard a comment on the radio about an accident in town, as she waited for her music, the old love songs of the Sixties and Seventies she enjoyed so much.   It seemed the interruption lasted longer than usual, but again, she wasn’t interested. Her job was only a couple of blocks away, at a small distribution company, so she never drove or took the bus. Road problems seldom caught her attention and her Mietta stayed under cover in the apartment complex undergound parking.

She enjoyed her walk to work, and often, another woman, Samantha, who worked at the local paper further down the block, would walk with her as far as her office. The women sometimes invited each other over for coffee, or for dinner.   Both of them were now avowed singles, having bravely fought their version of the battle of the sexes… and won, or so they thought. For the time being, men were off their list. They had discovered that cats, especially tomcats, made much better, warmer friends, had a good deal less expectations and were definitely less expensive to maintain.

“…It wasn’t until four this morning that a work crew discovered bodies wedged down a sewer manhole at 7th and Balsam. We advise commuters to avoid that area, as police and other emergency crews are still there, cleaning up and investigating. … and now, for more of your favourite songs… this is CKRY, YOUR GOOD MORNING RADIO… “Bridge Over Troubled Water, I will lay me down..” Judy smiled through her morning preparations for work. She deliberated over her day’s dress, and makeup.   She liked to change her appearance and paid a great deal of attention to her mood swings. She followed these with her own body artistry so she wouldn’t feel ill at ease, or out of sorts with herself for the rest of the day. She petted Tiny as he rubbed against her leg to make him understand he’d have to spend the day outside. Of course, he loved it outside, but he had to pretend he didn’t. There would be a lot of complaining as he finally jumped through the opened window onto the patio.

There would be birds to watch at the feeder the neighbours so diligently filled every morning.   Who knows, maybe a careless one would provide some extra protein today, and the woman next door would chase him angrily off her own balcony, providing some excitement… Birds could be so incredibly stupid, and humans so entertaining when properly motivated. He stretched and meowed loudly. When Judy saw his claws dangerously near her wooden rocking chair, she said “No!” and “OK boy, time for you to go out.” Tiny could have shrugged as he smiled inwardly… a very sarcastic cat smile. Yes, humans were predictable. One only had to know how to move and guide them to do what one wanted. After all, why do they have those hands and feet, processed foods, sliding windows and warm, soft laps, if not to serve cats? Tiny had learned, early in life, the incredible power he possessed in his long, soft grey fur, his deep voice and his well-groomed claws. He believed he could move mountains with these, and he did: mountains of human emotion.

Today would be green.   A light green dress, sheer green pantyhose, green shoes, green scarf, and her green coat, which was a darker shade, but that didn’t matter. She topped herself with a wide green woolen toque and felt quite ready to face the world.   “… Teenagers looking for a place to have a smoke on their way to school discovered bodies in an abandoned warehouse at the east end of town near the river. . Three men and two women were bludgeoned and left to freeze to death on the floor of the old building. Police are now investigating in force as fear is mounting that a crazed killer, or gang of killers, are loose in the town.”

Again, Judy paid scant attention. This was a big city, and things happened all the time. This had nothing to do with her, though it probably meant that Samantha would already have been called to work to deal with the news. Oh well, she would call her later and find out how it all went. Quarter to nine, and the pale sun was just rising over the city. It would be a still day, no wind and only a few white, wispy clouds. Good.   She hated walking in storms anyway.   “…Stay tuned for more news as our roving reporter brings you the latest in the killing rampage… this is CKRY,   YOUR GOOD..” and she turned off the radio, picked up her bag and left the apartment. She set her alarm, locked her door carefully, and went out into the cold morning air. She smelled the usual smog, the mixture of exhaust fumes, sulfur and other unnatural substances which always assailed her nostrils until she got used to them. She heard some distant sirens of emergency vehicles somewhere, but gave them no heed. In the still, cold morning, everything was so, so, normal.  

There was excitement at work over the night’s happenings, but she couldn’t get into it either. Why should she? It had nothing to do with her, absolutely nothing. She turned on her computer and began to tally, add, subtract, make sense of the orders, send letters, receive e-mail, and pass on the messages to the various department heads. It was a small trucking firm, so her work load was not so much heavy as it was varied.   She often thought of herself as a girl Friday in that place.

“Hey Judy: did you hear about last night?   They’ve found at least nine bodies by now, all killed in the weirdest ways. The funny thing is, there’s no rhyme or reason to the killings: they’re not prostitutes, or street people, or people of any particular category; they’re just people. One of them was a young boy, about 12. Most of them were just people driving home, or walking on the street, or so it seems.   What do you think of that?”

Well, Frank was always one to ask questions. For a brief moment, she wondered why these “killings” had no effect on her, why she didn’t care, absolutely didn’t, but quickly dismissed the thought. After all, she had her own life, her own problems, and had to remain aloof in order to keep it together. She had worked hard to reach this point of semi independence, and she wasn’t going to let anyone or anything rob her of her accomplishments.

“Look Frank, I don’t care, OK? It’s got nothing to do with me. It’s just one of those freak things that happen in big cities, and this is a big city, Frank. Why don’t you take care of that order for McGraw’s Deli instead of wasting my time with speculation on accidents and the like? They have people paid to do that: newscasters, analysts, shrinks, preachers, columnists, lawyers, the government… They won’t fill our orders, so let’s do our job and let them do theirs.”

“Hey, who pissed in your cornflakes this morning?”

“No one. I just can’t get personally involved in other people’s problems, OK?   I’ve got work to do and a life of my own. Why don’t you get one!”

Crestfallen, definitely resentful, Frank left. She felt so much better. Men!   They think they can come on to a girl by frightening her and offering protection. If she falls for it and lets the fear of being alone get to her, she may accept the not so innocent offer of an escort home, or an offer of a date… yeah, right. Well, not this girl. Been there, done that! Definitely don’t work!

From there on the day progressed normally.   The news spread, and there were more versions all the time. The favourite one was of alien abductions and experimentations. Organs were missing from the bodies, and they had all been killed in mysterious ways unknown to the experts in the field. Another was of an Oriental gang of trained martial arts experts led by a madman who wanted to take over all the cities of the west through fear and blackmail… There was one that talked of the return of count Dracula and vampires.

“Ridiculous!” Judy thought as she put on her shoes and coat. The weather had not changed. Everything was so, so still. The smog seemed a little heavier at the end of the day. She walked home briskly, hoping to meet with Samantha, but did not.   She was surprised, when she came in, that Tiny was not at the window, but he would be. She changed and prepared dinner. She set the table, looked out and called Tiny, then called Samantha.   No answer. Strange. Oh well, life goes on. Tiny is a tomcat, he’ll return. Samantha is probably working late at the paper. I know, I’ll call the paper. If she’s not there, I can leave a message.

A man answered her call: “Citadel News Room,   Jerry speaking. Can I help you?”

“Yes, I was wondering if Samantha was still at work?”

“Who wants to know?”

“Her friend, Judy Simpson, from the condos”

After a long pause, the man spoke: “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, miss Simpson, but Samantha was one of last night’s victims.”

“Oh!” and she hung up slowly. Tiny was scratching furiously at the window. She noticed her hand was shaking a little as she let him in.   She sat down to finish her meal. She would run a nice hot bath after the dishes were put in the dishwasher, and everything would be normal again… Absolutely everything.  

The Young Wife and an Age Old Dilemma

The Young Wife and an Age Old Dilemma
               [a short story by ~Sha’Tara~ ]

The air is warm, the wind but a gentle sigh through branches and foliage. Down-turned flowers reflect as washed water colours upon the otherwise unbroken grey surface of the slow-moving river below a shrub-covered bank. A soft grey rain falls steadily, sweeping over the river in misty sheets.  

Chinese Scene

From an observatory of heavy stones protruding over the edge of the river, a young woman holding a colourful umbrella stands perfectly still. Her patterned kimono blends easily with the near-by foliage. She looks intently over the river to a distant foot bridge. Two grey silhouettes, two people, a man and a woman, young and certainly in love, stand facing each other near the center of that bridge, their umbrellas touching, their free hands firmly clasped together. In their mutually worshipful stance they remain oblivious to anything around them.

An idyllic image.  

Certainly.

But how often on this world does beauty hide death?

The woman standing alone remains unmoving. Only her facial features reveal the powerful emotions that are running through her mind at this instant. Her lips are pulled tight together and her jaws clenched. She stares more intensely at the couple across from her. She knows they are completely unaware of her presence; unaware they are being not only observed but scrutinized.

In the distance a bell tolls the hour. The couple disengages and separates, he turning to the city offices lining the river and she, to a barely visible villa partially hidden by a small rolling hill and dark bushes on the opposite side of the river. 

The rain continues to fall unabated.

The observer now moves. She heads into the city proper, walking along the wet walkways as if in a trance until she finds what she was searching for.  She enters a small second hand store that offers practically anything for sale.  Casually taking off a fine silver bracelet, she places it on the counter to be examined by an obese man in a dirty t-shirt and wearing a drooping hat on his bald head. He slowly rolls a dead cigar between two protruding fat lips and examines the proffered item.

He names a price, the offer is accepted and the woman, taking her money, proceeds to walk through the ramshackle assortment of hardware. She scans a dusty glass shelf on which, among unrelated items, a small dagger in an imitation leather and gem case reposes.   She picks it up, brushes some dust off of its handle and pulls it out of its scabbard. She tests its blade against the unblemished skin of her left ring finger.  It leaves a thin crimson line.   She sighs, expressing a bitter smile and returns to the counter to pay for her find.

Having returned to the street, she tucks the knife in a fold of her kimono’s ample sleeves, opens her umbrella and proceeds to walk away from the lower shops near the river, pushing deeper into the city’s noisy streets. She is quickly absorbed by the hundreds of shoppers and pedestrians crowding the narrow sidewalks, disappearing among them.

Two days go by.  The storm passes and the rain ends.  The city’s ugly stain continues to mar the landscape.  Everything is the same.

It’s early morning and the sun has broken through the mist to reveal a classic landscape of flowering shrubs in a liberal avalanche of colours. From the second-floor balcony of an apartment, a door opens and a man in white shirt and pants steps out, standing to look at the scenery, listening to the excited calls of mating birds and inhaling the freshness of the morning air.  His face bears and air of satisfaction and anticipation.  A smile plays on the edge of his lips and he seems to be imagining something very attractive to him. 

He takes a towel hanging from his arm and casually wipes a small glass table and two chairs. On the now dry table he drops his morning paper and goes back into the house for his tea and toast which are in turn placed on the small table. He sits, sips his tea, eats part of a toast and proceeds to scan through his paper.

A woman in an azure kimono now steps upon the patio.  She is young, tall and very slim with almost translucent skin, a small round face and piercing black eyes.  Her thick, straight dark-brown hair hangs freely down her back past her waist.  After standing by the door for a few moments to take in some of the morning’s scenery, she in turn sits at the table. For a few moments she looks at the man reading his paper with an inscrutable Mona Lisa smile, then places her face in her hands, saying not a word. The man shakes the paper to spread the pages and continues his reading as if unaware of her presence.

The birds in surrounding trees continue their trills and bickering as the sun slowly but inexorably rises above dissipating morning mists, colouring tree tops and blushing hedgerows. Shadows shorten, the air growing humid and heavy.

As far as nature is concerned, this day is just another day.

Why shouldn’t it be?  

Only in the heart of man can the answer to that be found.

A bell tolls in the distance, announcing the hour. The man briefly looks over his paper, taking stock of his surroundings by glancing over his round-rimmed glasses.  He deftly turns a page and starts reading again. The woman sighs but does not move. It is as if she is made of polished bronze or fine marble, a graceful statue of inscrutable mien, fit for a palace drawing room.

“Ah!” The sound barely escapes the man’s lips. He folds the paper and bends his head to read. His face goes through several masks as he seeks to control his emotions. “Ah!” escapes again.

“What is troubling you, darling?” says the woman in a dulcet tone, raising her head and turning to him. “Unsavory news?”

“Oh… it’s… it’s nothing, nothing personal. Just that a woman who worked in our offices was found murdered yesterday in her villa. She had her throat slit. Excuse me, I have to get ready for work.” The man gets up obviously shaken and, bent over, enters the house and heads for the bathroom.

After another heavy sigh, the young wife stands and with a sudden turn her Mona Lisa smile vanishes.  She walks slowly to the balcony’s metal railing and grasping it firmly with both hands, she stares across the river at the line of villas and houses beyond a foot bridge.  Now her face displays pure, intense satisfaction.