Category Archives: Suspense

The Garbage Man – Part III

Continuing with the story, “The Garbage Man”.  What was to be a short story has taken off on me and is well on its way to becoming another fantasy novel.  No idea where it is going either.  I hope you do enjoy it.  The title will eventually change and Lotharic, you will discover, will return to his earlier name, Edgar, not only by popular request but because Beanna prefers it.  Oh, and the name, Allay is pronounced “Ally.”  And typos may be lurking where least expected… Otherwise, let’s see what dreams may come.

{start of part III}

“I feel so terribly cold…”

Lotharic brought Beanna out of the transition trance and explained: “I took you between worlds and it was your body that felt the cold of abandonment. We cannot travel thus physically. Whenever we enter the astral worlds we must leave our physical bodies behind.”

“So, my question about why we simply do not slip into the astral when confronted with dangerous enemies is answered isn’t it? They would simply kill us in the physical and we could never return and never leave the astral, forever stuck between worlds?”

“Yes, that’s explains it, for now, but there is more to it.”

“Fine, now I’m an Allaya, why don’t I feel or look any different?”

“Allaya in title, not in fact. I must begin your training now, at least as far as I can. You will need a full Allaya to complete it.”

“You said none are left alive here.”

“That is correct, but “here” is not the only meeting place. There is the astral. We will deal with that when the time comes.”

Gradually a grey line appeared on the eastern horizon and details of the landscape began to emerge. They encountered a dry creek bed and followed it, thus somewhat hidden from distant prying eyes.

“This bed has moisture in it, we should find a pool soon. I’m terribly thirsty… You know we are heading into the high country?”

“Are you sure, Bea?”

“This is my country now, Loth. We will have to cross some high hills, then if we continue north-east we will come to the sea, and a sizeable port. Much opportunity there for people like us.”

“I am curious. What are ‘people like us’ to you?”

“You know, warriors and entertainers. Men are always fascinated by me and love to make outrageous bets against the chances a small woman like myself has against a burly sailor or soldier, or an agile shepherd. Even if some get seriously damaged, it’s their own stupidity to blame, and I make good money at it. The trick is to escape with that money. But now there’s the two of us, and you are pretty handy with that staff. We pair up, we’re un-defeatable, well, within reason. We can easily handle the four on two. There’s always very high odds on that game. Sometimes it’s to the death but beggars can’t always choose, huh?”

“You sound eager to engage such combats, Bea?”

“It’s what has kept me training, and consequently, alive. A young girl, alone, in this land has no chance at all but to end up in a brothel or put on a ship to be sold as a slave on the mainland. To survive she has to have something going for her, and she has to make that happen on her own. The men don’t care what becomes of me after taking their pleasure and profit, so I don’t care if I kill them to get my own pleasure and profit. Tit for tat, my friend. And really Loth, don’t you see I’m still the victim even if I win? I can never be free to be myself, they won’t let me.”

“Interesting. What would it mean to be yourself? Who would you be?”

“I would care. I would love. I would protect, heal, and feed. If I were myself, I’d be a giver, never a taker. I would most certainly not go about armed. What keeps me going is hopelessness; the knowing that things cannot change, and the hate I nurture against such a world and what it forces me to be. I cannot love. My mother did and it killed her. I don’t wish to die a victim if there is a chance I can fight and defeat those who would destroy me. I smell water. Let’s be alert: pools attract animals, including the two legged kind.”

Lotharic pulled his staff, gripped it and shook it, loosening his arm muscles. Bea unslung her bow, strung it and pulled three arrows from the quiver, placing one lightly on the string, pulling and sighting in a sweeping arc. They approached the source of water slowly, quietly.

Voices. A sudden bit of breeze brought the strong smell of sheep. Shepherds or poachers? They stepped up out of the creek bed and in the growing daylight they counted four men and about two dozen sheep. Bea and Lotharic crept up to hear their conversation. Soon they knew these were poachers. They had killed two sheherds to steal what sheep they could before the main herd ran off. They were discussing how to sell their stolen goods without getting hanged in the process.

“We go west. There’s a town down there, maybe a day away driving these stupid animals.”

“Is there a guard there?”

“Yes, but they are easily bribed. They don’t much care what goes on in the countryside.”

“How do you know this?”

“I lived there for a time, hauling stones. There’s a girl there too I wouldn’t mind seeing again. The town’s the place to go being closest, or all this is for naught.”

Lotharic nudged Bea and whispered: “We have to take them down, they’re murderers and they will kill more people if we don’t stop them. This is bow work. Do it!”

The short but powerful bow twanged and one of the bandits fell, an arrow through the heart. It twanged again and another screamed and fell with an arrow through the left eye. The other two threw themselves on the ground using their fallen comrades as shields. An arm with a sword came up, the bow twanged and the arm had an arrow through the wrist. Another blood curdling scream followed. Lotharic slid down from their hiding place and ran to the last bandit who jumped up with a staff of his own and stood ready.

“Hold Bea, this one is mine. What’s your name, fellow?” He casually parried a thrust from the bandit’s staff, who then backed away a step to prepare a new attack. “I said, what’s your name? You tell me that, and the story about these stolen animals and who knows, you die quickly, painlessly. You say nothing and this girl coming down the embankment there has ways to make men talk. You can’t begin to imagine the pain she is about to inflict on you. She’s a real artist about it. Know this, that either way, you are a dead man.”

Another attack, just as easily parried, then a blow from Lotharic so swift the bandit has no time to parry and his left arm is broken. Another scream, of pain and impotent rage. Lotharic disarms him as if it was the most casual thing in the world for anyone to do. The bandit falls to the ground, sitting and grimacing while holding his broken arm. Meanwhile Bea has pulled out a short dagger from inside her boot and dispatched her winged bandit cleanly and has already begun going through their belongings for anything of value.

The last surviving bandit is trussed up, none too gently and amidst screams of pain, against a sturdy thorn bush growing from the stream bank, the inch-long thorns doing their own work to prevent much thrashing. The broken arm is left dangling, a useful incentive in an interrogation.

“Let’s give him some time to think things over, Loth. I’m going to have a long drink, then there’s some decent food in these packs and I’m hungry. We didn’t have any breakfast and small bodies are inconvenient in that they don’t go far on empty stomachs. What did you think of my bow work?”

“Not bad, but I’ve seen better.” He winked at her to diffuse her immediate rising anger. She knew her skills in archery were second to none, having won enough trophies to prove it. He would speak to her later about her pride and again, her impulsiveness. The Allaya training must begin but he must let her be herself for awhile yet so she can later compare her own nature to that of a fully empowered Allaya. It would be a long and difficult transformation, he feared.

After sating themselves, making sure the sheep were settled, eating and resting a bit, they turned their attention to the suffering bandit, a scruffy, weathered character of indeterminate age, with a prominent scar across the face and long scraggly hair. No past, no future. A human derelict surviving on the labour and blood of others.

“I’ve created a rather baleful reputation to this man for you Bea. If I leave him to you, you won’t disappoint me, will you? I, we, need crucial information from him, so he has to live long enough to give it and frankly I don’t care how you get it, just get it. We need to know where these sheep come from, and where the shepherds’ bodies are and how long ago this dastardly deed was committed. Have at it, artist.”

We, of our comfortable ways, with our laws and police, may be somewhat disappointed that our heroes would turn out to be such cold blooded individuals that they could horribly torture another for information. But before we carry our judgment too far, let’s remember the times, the places, the circumstances delineating how the people of that land interacted with one another. Internecine warfare was endemic. Gangs of bandits roamed the countryside, most of them formed by dispossessed individuals who had themselves seen family, children, lovers, friends, decimated, tortured, raped and enslaved by conquerors. In these times, you gave an inch, you died, seldom painlessly. I’m writing this down to remind the reader not to carry judgment of actions taken here based on her or his current reality. Although things never really change, there are cycles when overt violence dwindles for a time, or simply moves to another action theatre, for earth is a place of much bloody drama. If you are of those now living in a land that is experiencing a lessening of violence, just be thankful but remember, it’s a cycle. What was, will be.

“What’s your name?” It was Bea’s turn to ask. Instead of replying he tried to spit in her face.

“Sorry, incorrect response. For each incorrect response I must perform a reminder.” She grabbed the broken arm and bent it backward, trying to avoid being deafened by the following scream.

“Good. Your name is ‘Scream.’ An appropriate name. So, Scream, tell me, when did you and your dead friends kill the sheep’s shepherds?” Only deep breathing and silence answered.

“Another inappropriate response. If I have to change your name from Scream to Silence, that will only count against you. Silence is inadmissible. So, what comes next? Cutting? Yes, I think that cutting would be an incentive. Let’s start with the clothes, they get in the way of seeing what one is accomplishing, don’t you think? Oh, I forgot, you’re Silence now. Fine.

With Lotharic watching, she proceeded to cut open shirt and trousers, and pulled his shoes off. More screaming as she roughly pulled off the shirt’s sleeve off the broken arm. Then she removed the rest of his clothing and looked at his pathetic nakedness.

“It’s ugly, but there is much to choose from here. Shall I perform a castration? You know, I saw that done on a few occasions in public squares on poor blokes less guilty of crimes than you. So I won’t feel any regrets here.”

She grabbed the man’s genitals and penis and dragged the cold blade of her dagger across the skin as she pulled outwardly. The man groaned, then uttered a guttural, “NO!”

“It’s a miracle. It talks! Silence talks. I guess we go back to Scream then, hey? Scream is so much more fun. She yanked on his package, squeezed, and was given a healthy scream.

“Good. It’s working. Now where do I start cutting? Let’s see. Snip the balls, slowly, one after the other. That’s how I remember it being done.” She makes a bloody cut across the base of the scrotum. More screams.

“I don’t care for screams, Scream. I want some simple information. When did you steal the sheep? Why won’t you tell me? You have nothing to lose and much to gain. You’re going to die by my own hands, either swiftly and painlessly, or in long, long, very painful moments. My next cut is going to open your sack and I’m going to slice off your balls. It’s traditional to stuff them in your mouth but I can’t do that, seeing as I need you to be able to speak, so maybe I’ll cook them and if you get hungry…huh?”

The bandit retched and tossed against the thorn. Blood appeared where the spines did their work.

“I… No!”

“Ah! so you are protecting others. I thought so. Well, let’s see what they’re worth to you.”

She sliced off his genitals and placed them on a flat stone where he could look at them. Then she returned to the shaking body and made tiny cuts in the skin wherever she dragged the razor-sharp dagger’s tip, all the while maintaining a soliloquy.

“I’m not done down there yet, but I’m saving the penis for later. Now I’m trying to find a piece of skin to remove that would cause extreme pain. Maybe a breast, what do you say, Scream? I’m sure it will make you live up to your name. Once more: when did you kill the shepherds and take their sheep? A simple question. It’s not that we couldn’t figure it out but this is better, giving you a chance to redeem a bit of yourself before you shake hands with Old Grim. He’s going to be your master for eternity you know. OK, I’m cutting now.”

Amid the twisting and screaming, the breast and associated skin came slowly off, blood running freely down the body. Bea then poked the dagger in the bloody hole, eliciting even more excruciatingly unbearable pain.

“I just want some answers, Scream. You are the one in charge here. You can avoid all this rather unpleasant business by telling me what I want to know. Think about it while I prepare the next little surprise. She walked to a pack and brought out a shirt. Cutting off some of the fabric, she rolled in some dry leaves and tied it to the man’s penis. Then she made a small torch and lit it in the poachers’ fire. She waved it in the man’s face and showed him what she was about to do.

“That’s right. I’m going to light up your joy stick. That should make you want to dance. Once more, how long ago did you kill those shepherds and steal their sheep? No? OK, I can be patient, but not all in a row. Besides, I’m eager to see how my little torchlight ceremony works as I’ve never seen that done. Ready?”

“No!”

“Wrong answer.”

She lit up the dangling torch and was rewarded with some truly offensive cursing and screams. Then suddenly, silence. Total, complete silence, as the fire kept burning and spreading a smell of cooking flesh. She looked up and saw that the man had passed out. She couldn’t work out in her mind whether she was disappointed, or relieved.

“He’s passed out. I need some water to throw on him, bring him back.”

Lotharic, who had been wandering about for a while now, checking the landscape, watching for anyone approaching, came to inspect the inert body. He moved his hand expertly over the heart, neck and throat.

“Your man’s dead, Bea. There’s things a body, even a healthy one, can’t take. The heart stopped.”

“We didn’t get any information.” Matter of fact voice.

“We never needed any, Bea. I was testing your resolve, and comparing your current state of mind to that of a full fledged Allaya. I am going to explain something deep and terrible to you later. For now we have to bury these bodies. There’s an old talus slope over there. The rocks are loose enough we can stack the bodies inside a cavity and cause a rock slide over them.”

They dragged the bodies to the cavity and buried them under rock and dirt. Bea then cleaned herself up, re-stacked her arrows with great care, unstrung her bow and slipped it in its holder next to the quiver. It was only when she bent down to scoop some water to drink and wash her hands that she noticed they were shaking violently. She rushed away from the pool and threw up. Only then did she become fully aware of what she had done.

“Are you sick, Bea?”

“Yes… No. I’m filled with hate and disgust at myself and this world. Right now I want to commit seppuku.” As she was talking, she pulled the short sword from its scabbard and flexed it. Lotharic came up quietly behind her and held her, pinning her sword arm.

“Put the sword away, Beanna. What happened here, none of it was your fault, or even your doing. I manipulated your thoughts and feelings to expose your darkest side. It was necessary. Now, together, we will work on bringing out the compassionate, caring, loving Allaya. We will transform you. But again, let me emphasize: you needed to see for yourself; to experience, the depth of evil you are capable of as a human being. What you saw and did today is true for your entire race, or species. It is who and what you are. Some of you, particularly women and children hide it well from themselves, but the “good” among you are the exceptions and your goodness is always artificially produced. You are not naturally good, but rather always bend towards evil. Soon you will understand and fully accept that. The Allay and Allaya knew this fact about Earthians before they agreed to come here. We thought we understood the risks of course.”

{End of Part III – 180113}

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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.