Simon and the Box

His legs burned.  His feet stung.  His chest ached from the brutal pace of his heart.  “Almost there,” Simon breathlessly assured himself.  “Almost there.”  The brown wooden box was tucked in the crux of his right arm, just like he used to hold the football back in his college running back days.  He thought for a brief moment about looking behind him to see if the three NSA agents in black suits were still gaining on him, but the thought vanished as a hanging basket of flowers a foot away from his right ear erupted as he past it.  A booming gunshot instantaneously followed.  Simon picked up the pace.  He could see the entrance to the parking garage a block ahead.  If he could just make it to his car.

“Stop!” one of the agents screamed.  “Drop the box!   You’ve got nowhere to go!”  Simon heard something whiz past his left ear as another shot rang out.  He pushed his legs to pump faster.

Simon had nicknamed the one screaming nicknamed “The Boss.”  The Boss was lean and serious.  The oldest of the three, he was observant, never missing a moment.

Simon was sure the agent firing his gun in the open street was the youngest of the three, the one Simon had dubbed “Reckless.”

The one Simon feared most was the third, the one he’d nicknamed “Rhino.”  Rhino towered over his two partners.  His shoulders were broad and bulging.  Simon knew if any of them had the ability to run him down, it was Rhino.

Simon had been stalking the box for two weeks.  He’d watched as the three agents collect it from the bank vault.  He’d tracked their comings and goings from the cheap motel room they were held up in.  He’d slept in his car.  He’d shadowed their every move; but not once had they left it unattended.  Then, to Simon’s surprise, Reckless had left the box sitting on the roof of their black sedan while he loaded the agents’ luggage in the trunk.  Simon knew it was his only chance.  He sprinted toward the vehicle, snatched the box, and ran as fast as he could down the street.  The chase was on.

Simon darted to his right, into the three story parking garage.  He could hear footsteps less than twenty yards behind him.  He opted to run the ramp rather than to pause at the stair doors.  A concrete pillar exploded to his left.  The echo of the gun shot in the concrete structure was deafening.  Simon fought through the impulse to grab his ears.  As he turned the corner, he chanced a glance over his shoulder.  Rhino and Reckless were both fifteen yards back, but gaining.  The Boss wasn’t far behind them.

“Stop!  Drop the Box!” The Boss screamed again.  His voice echoed through the garage.

Simon knew if he could just make it to his car he would be home free.   He raced passed a red pickup whose reverse lights were on.  The driver wasn’t paying any attention.  Simon heard one of the agents bag into it and curse.

Simon rounded the last turn of the garage ramp.  The sunlight was warm on his face.  He sprinted across the roof to his car, reached in his pocket with his left hand, and fumbled with his keys.  His back window shattered and another gun shot rang out.  Simon dropped to the ground.  The side mirror closest to him exploded with a loud bang.  Three more gun blasts rang through the air as bullets pinged the car.  Simon glanced between the tires and saw Reckless standing statuesque, two hands on his revolver, waiting patiently for a clear shot.  The sunlight glimmered off his sunglasses.

The Boss and Rhino arrived.  Both drew their sidearms.  “Just give us the box, boy,” the Boss said.  “Give us the box and you can walk away.  This is all just a big misunderstanding.”

Simon crept on his belly toward the wall, putting distance between himself and the agents, making sure their view of him was blocked by the parked cars.

“Come on out,” Reckless said with a grin.  “You know you want to. We don’t bite. Promise.”

“Put the guns away,” Simon screamed.  “Put the guns away and I’ll give you the box.”

“Alright, alright,” The Boss said laughing.  He laid his gun on the ground.  Rhino followed suit.  Simon couldn’t see Reckless.  “Guns are gone.  Come on out, kid,” The Boss said gently.

Simon sat up with his back pressed against the parking garage wall.  He took a deep breath to calm his pounding heart.  His legs stung from the run.

“Come on, son,” said the Boss. “I don’t want to hurt you, this is just a simple mistake, but we don’t have time for this.”

Simon breathed deeply once more as he looked at the box.  It was heavy and old.  There were ornate swirls and stars carved into the lid.  He ran his hand across the designs and admired the craftsmanship.

“Agent Sims, go get him and drag him out here,” the the Boss said angrily.

Panicking, Simon jumped to his feet, scrambled up the parking garage wall, and held the wooden box out into air with his right hand.  “Stay back or I’ll drop it,” he yelled.

Rhino and Reckless both drew their weapons again.  The Boss took slow steps toward Simon with his hand held out pleading for Simon to stop.  “You don’t want to do that, son.  That’s not just some box.  You drop that and bad things are going to happen,” The Boss said.  “Step down from there.”

“Stay back!” Simon yelled jerking the box toward the ground, pretending to drop it. The Boss froze.

“I’ve got a clean shot, sir,” Reckless said.

“Stand down Agent Jax,” The Boss replied without breaking eye contact with Simon.  Then to Simon he said, “You really don’t want to do this, kid. You’re in way over your head.”

Simon pulled the box back to his chest.  He looked at The Boss, then at Reckless, then at Rhino. There was no way out, no escape.  He looked down at the box again, thinking.  He locked eyes with The Boss and held the box out in front of him with his left hand.  He moved his right hand to the lid.

“No!” The Boss screamed.

Simon smiled and opened the box.

The Hazel Branch


June 4th, 2015

April clutched her coffee with both hands, holding the mug close to her lips.  The heat on her palms made her afraid to take the first sip, so instead she savored the smell and steam.  She yawned and looked up through the branches of the tree in her back yard at the retiring stars.  Standing there, on her back porch, April relished the purple light of the new born sunrise.  She knew she needed to get moving.  There was only an hour left for her to get into the shower, get dressed for work, and get to the bus stop; but still she lingered, feeling the steam swirl in her nostrils and looking out over the grass.

She loved her back yard.  April had only lived on the block for a few months.  After graduating from High School, it’d taken her eight months working at the grocery store register to save enough for the first and last months’ rent.  She’d plan to be choosy and take her time finding a place, but this was the first house she’d seen and she jumped on it.  It was a run down, long neglected mess that needed new paint, new carpet, and electrical work.  But the yard.  She had never seen anything like that yard.  It went on and on, the length of two full rowhomes.  She had chosen it solely for the yard.  Growing up on Fulton ave, all she’d ever known was a seven by eight concrete slab.  The yard had called to her.  It had stirred her soul.  With that yard, the condition of the house was irrelevant.

April braved a sip.  The hot liquid seared her taste buds.  Deciding to steal another second from her morning routine, she breathed deeply and smiled.  The light of day was slowly gaining strength and the green of the grass took on a rich, almost neon hue, as if she was looking at it through an instagram flitter.  She loved this place.  Sure the house at the end of the block, three doors down, was abandon and rat infested.  Sure the elderly Indian man in the house to the left cooked strange smelling food every night.  Sure it was a a longer bus trip to the Safeway where she worked.  She didn’t mind any of it.  It was worth it.  That marvelous yard made it worth it.

She bit her lower lip and sighed.  There was no more time for lazing around and smelling steam.  She stepped out of her brown slippers, not wanting to get them soiled with dirt, rested her mug on the window seal behind her, walked down the back porch steps toward the chicken wire surrounding her garden.  The old wood of the steps tickled her bare feet.  She paused at the bottom of the stairs to pat the trunk of her tree.  She’d always wanted an old tree in her back yard.  She rubbed the rough bark affectionately and looked up the trunk.  It’s withering complexion told it was in the tailspin of life.  Standing next to the tree always made her wonder how many amazing things the aging giant had seen.

She gave the tree one final rub and then continued forward.  Before April had unpacked her kitchen boxes, before she had painted her bedroom walls, before she had hung any pictures, she had planted her garden; and for the past three mornings she’d been eyeing the strawberries.  She was sure they were ready.   Last night as she’d made dinner April had envisioned eating them on the bus on the way to work.  Sitting in the silence of her kitchen table, she ate and searched Google on her cell phone hoping to discover what a ripe strawberry still on the bush was supposed to feel like.

She arrived at the chicken wire and tapped it’s sharp tips with her fingers..  The wire was for the rats.  She’d read online that if she buried it deep enough they wouldn’t be bothered to dig underneath it.  So far so good.  Although, April suspected what really compelled the rats to leave her fruit and vegetables alone was the always overflowing Royal Farms dumpster across the street.  Why mess with picking fresh food when half eaten Royal Farms fried chicken was readily available for minimal effort?

April removed her robe before attempting to easy over the wire.  Every time she ventured into the small plot, she regretted not putting in a gate.  The thin, tattered blue frock had been her grandmothers.  It did nothing in the winter to keep the cold off, but she still put it on every day after work because it reminded her of the gentle old lady April so wanted to be like.  April hung the robe carefully on the fence post and then gingerly stepped over the mesh, trying not to catch the crotch of her grey sweat pants on the wire.  She’d already ruined one pair this way.  Tore a whole right down the seam.

As she shifted her weight from one leg to the next, she noticed a man standing in the street at the end of her yard.  Something about him gave her immediate concern.  April had never seen him before.  He was tall and slender.  He wore a white sleeveless undershirt, baggy jeans with no belt, and backward black hat.  There were black ink tattoos on his arms.  His goatee was trimmed tightly around his mouth, and his pants sagged revealing a good two inches of black boxers.  He stood with his hands in his pockets, his spin curved, leaning on his back foot.  He was staring at her.  She wondered how long he’d been watching.

April pretended not to see him.  She crossed the small plot of earth, careful not to crush rows of sprouting vegetables.  She dropped down to one knee in front of the small, young strawberry bush.  Pretending to look at the large berries, she ventured a glance up toward the man.  Fear filled alarm bells clanged in her head as she watched the him effortlessly slither over the short small black fence and into her yard.  His hungry eyes were still locked on her.

Forgetting the berries, April stood and moved back toward the gate.  The man was moving quicker now with long, determined strides.  His hands were out of his pockets and balled into fists.  His closed lips morphed into a confident smile.

April’s heart pounded in her chest.  Forgetting the sprouts, she felt them crunch under her feet as she hurried to the fence.  She looked at the back stairs and worried she wouldn’t be able to make it to the door.  She glimpsed back to the man.   He was walking  even faster.  He grinned at her fear.

Watching the man approach, she threw her right leg over the wire with panic.  Her grey pants snagged, tripping her.  She fell face first into the dirt, the ankle of her right leg still caught in the wire.  The man laughed.  He was almost on her.  His voice was low and dangerous.  April felt the sting of a scratch running down her inner thigh, a gift from the fence.

April ripped her leg from the wire and scrambled forward on her hands and knees in a wild frenzy.  Tears filled and burned her eyes.  She could hear his heavy, excited breathing and smell the booze he was bathed in.  She saw the tree.  It was only a few feet ahead.  If she could just make it to the tree.  The base was only a few inches away.  The man had slowed.  He was within arms distance.  She could see the hole.  If she could just make it to the hole.

A scream escaped her as she felt the man’s rough hands yank hard on her ankles.  Aprils hands came out from under her.  Her mouth filled with dirt.  He drug her backwards, laughing more.   She looked over her shoulder and met his lustful glare.  Terror filled her chest.  The man laughed again and twisted her legs, forcing her to flip over.  He moved forward, blocking out the light, seeking to pin her, but she kicked hard with her right leg.  April was aiming for his groin, but instead she made contact with his stomach.   He hiss at the impacted, surprised by her resistance.  His blood shot eyes burned with anger.

April knew instinctively that she wouldn’t get another chance.  He would give her another open shot.  She spun back on her belly, lurched forward, and shoved her right hand deep into the hole beneath the tree.  Her palm found its prize.  She gripped it tightly.

The man grunted and grabbed her legs again.  He twisted them harder this time, spinning her with more force.  April tried to kick again, but he was ready.  He absorbed the blow and pinned her thighs to the ground with his left forearm.  He reached down with his right hand to undo the button on his pants.  He met her gaze hoping to find fear in her eyes, but he was left wanting and confused.  April met his eyes with a victorious and fierce smile.

The roar of the .40 caliber Saturday Night Special in April’s hand ripped through the morning air.  Warm, thick, stick liquid splattered across her face and chest.  The man  stumbled backward looking at his prey with disoriented surprise.  He gasped for breath.  His hands grabbed at the newly forms hole above his heart.  Red blood throbed through his fingers.  He fell backwards.  Sitting in her grass, his mouth hung open wide in shock as a pool grew around him.

April lept to her feet and ran into the house.   She found her phone on the kitchen table.   The room was spinning.  She wanted to vomit.  She tried to dial but only smeared blood across the touch screen.  She held the voice command button down with her thumb and sobbed over and over into the device, “Call nine-one-one.  Call nine-one-one.”

The phone rang.  “Nine-one-one,” a tired voice said on the other end.  “What’s your emergency?”

April’s knees caved.  She fell to the floor of the kitchen.  Trying to catch her breath, she cried into the phone, “A man.  A man tried to rape me.  But I shot him.  I shot him with the gun.  I shot him with the gun I hide under my tree.  The tree in my yard.”

“It’s okay ma’am,” the voice in the phone said.  “Help is on the way.”

Hunter Finds His Thing


March, 2012

The rain took Baltimore by surprise. It was fast and all consuming. Then as quickly as it had begun, it was gone. The squall had soaked the city like a building being demolished with TNT blankets its surroundings in debris. Hunter breathed deep and let the clean, wet air fill his nose. It was revitalizing. He loved quiet calm of downtown after a late night downpour. There was a unique peace that only came after all the rats had scurried into their holes to escape the storm.

Federal Hill was abandoned. There were no kids on the swings, no owners wondering if they should let their dogs off the leash. It was just Hunter and remnants of the rain. He leaned back on his bench, stretching his arms across the top wooden slat.  His t-shirt soaked through and clung to his skin, sending a chill up his spin; but he refused to shiver.

Drumming his fingers on the bench in a spastic non-rhythm, Hunter looked out over the city. He closed his eyes and imagined what it would be like to be in charge. Hunter had no aspirations for political office. He had no dreams of becoming the mayor or governor or anything of that sort. All those occupations looked like too much work.

Years of abuse and bullying had created a hunger in his gut for the respect that came with power. He wanted to be a man people whispered about when he came down the street. He wanted the waitresses to jump to when he walked into one of the fancy coffee shops on Cross Street. He wanted them to bring him his usual before he had a chance to ask. He salivated over the idea of people knowing what his “usual” was.  The thought made him smile.

Hunter knew he just needed to find his thing. He needed to find something that would make him famous, something that would separate him from the herd, something that would bring recognition. Options were limited for a kid in his income bracket. The Hip-Hop road was closed. He couldn’t rap, sing, or play an instrument. He was a horrible student. He day dreamed too much to earn A’s, so the title “doctor” probably wasn’t in his future. Sports were also out. His fifteen-year-old frame was less than ordinary, unimpressive at best. He’d once seen a pastor driving a Bentley and briefly considered pursuing a career in religion, but church services put him to sleep.

Hunter rubbed his eyes with his palms. He was sure it was close to two in the morning. He wasn’t worried. His thing would come to him. He was sure he would stumble into it. He knew in his soul that fate had big plans for him. He just wished it would speed things up a little so he could get past this poor, nobody teenager chapter.

Hunter leaned his head back to catch rain drops from the tree branches over his head. Sliding his neck from left to right, he snatched the drops in his mouth as they fell. It was then that he noticed it in his peripheral vison. Almost behind him, on the other side of the park, there was a sharp, blue glow.

Hunter swiveled on the bench. He crouched behind it and, using it as a shield. Carefully, he peered over the top of the wood slats to investigate. Across the park Hunter saw the bright burn of three cell phones, each held by a man perched on the cusp of the hill. They were sitting side by side in the grass, facing away from him. Hunter grinned like a fox stalking its prey.

As he slid from behind the bench, Hunter rushed forward, using the playground equipment as cover. The tower of the spiral slide gave a perfect hiding spot to plan his next advance. His feet made a scraping shuffle as he half crawled and half ran to take cover behind at the tip of the final slide, he crouched low and listened. The three men were still too far off for him to make out the specifics of their conversation. He looked at the fifty yards between them. If he chanced it, he’d be in the open. He drummed his fingers a-rhythmically on the plastic slide, weighing the risk and reward. He decided. What else did he have to do? He crept forward, walking lightly, hoping not to make a sound.

At ten yards away he lay down on his belly in the wet grass. He could make out the content of their whispers. The three men were arguing. They were angry about a house across the street. One of them was contending they should simply kick in the front door. Another was demanding they “be smart about the whole thing.”

“What we need,” the biggest one said, “is someone to test it for us. I ain’t getting’ stuck in no trap. We need some punk to go, check it out, and let us in.”

The middle one leaned backward on his left hand. Turning his torso toward where Hunter was hiding, he yelled, “Yo, kid in the grass. Come here.”

Hunter didn’t move, hoping they were talking about some other kid laying on his belly in the mud.

“Yo, you, stupid kid in rolling around the grass. You ain’t slick,” the middle one yelled again. Hunter could hear the other two laughing. He made a mental note. Spying was not his thing. “Come over here or I’ll come over there. And you don’t want me to come over there, you little bitch.”

Hunter stood and brushed himself off, trying to retain a sliver of dignity. He walked over pretending there was nothing unusual about a fifteen-year-old lying in the grass of Federal Hill Park at two in the morning.

The men sitting on the right and left were in full hysterics by the time Hunter arrived.  They shoved at each other with glee of toddlers as they laughed.  Hunter’s head ached with rage.  He hated it when people laughed at him.

“Don’t make me call you a third time,” one in the middle said.  “Get your ass over here and present yourself.”

Hunter continued his current pace, pretending as if he was coming of his own choosing rather than in response to a summons. Finally, standing in front of the three men, Hunter looked them each in their eyes. They were fierce. He wanted to look away. His eyes longed to drift toward his shoes, but Hunter denied them their desire. He kept his stare firm, feigning the absence of fear.

Hunter knew them all.  He had seen them in his travels through the city. The one on the right was a high up in the Latino Broadway Street crew. He wore a black t-shirt, black running pants, and blue sneakers. Only two of his tattoos were visible: the Roman numerals XVIII filled his neck, and the numbers 666 were seated over his right eye.

The one on the left leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.  He loosely gripped a sleek, black pistol in his right hand, and stroked it with his left. He wore simple blue jeans and a white undershirt that partially covered the gun. He had the look of a man who enjoyed routine prison work outs. Hunter had seen him on the east side and knew he was important in the Black Family gang.

The one in the middle was Hunter’s cousin, Nate, or “Nate Dog” as his crew called him. Nate was in an over-sized, red, baseball jersey with the letters DAMU across the front where numbers should be. Family by blood only, Nate and Hunter cared nothing for one another.

All three were giants on their blocks, heads in their gangs. Hunter thought it strange to see them together. This must be a momentous occasion to place them all in Federal Hill together.

“Oh shit,” Nate laughed. “Lil’ Hunt?” Nate looked his younger cousin up and down. “Auntie Nan know you’re out here past your bed time?”  The other two laughed.  Hunter held firm, unbending.

“You know this kid?” the one on the left said.

“He’s hard, yo,” the one on the right added. “You think you’re tough lookin’ me in the eye, yo,” he said menacingly to Hunter. “I’ll pluck’em right out of your head, little bitch. Keep it up and see what happens.”

“He don’t look like much, but he can do it, right?” the one on the left said, looking Hunter up and down.

“Yeah,” Nate said with a smile. “He’ll do fine. And if shit go wrong, ain’t no one going to miss him.”

The one on the left stood and brushed his pants off. “Here’s how this is going to work,” he said to Hunter. “See that house over there?” He gestured with his gun to a row-home behind Hunter. It was less a question and more a command. Hunter turned to look at the house. It was a four story, red brick, row home with marble steps and an ornate front door.

“Yeah,” Hunter said with apathy, still angry he was discovered in the grass. He’d hoped spying might be his thing. The truth was painful.  “I see it,” he said. “What about it?”

The gang-banger shoved his pistol into pants at his back and continued, “We want in that house. We paid a lot of money to call off the guards. But we don’t know what else might be waiting for us. So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to throw you over the back fence.  If you get eaten by dogs, or arrested, or shot, then we’re going leave you small, worthless ass. But if you can figure out how to let us in, then maybe after will have stuff for you.”

“Like what stuff?” Hunter said.

“How ‘bout I promise not to rip your fucking ears off for trying to listen to conversations you shouldn’t be listening to,” the Hispanic man on the right said, standing.

“Why do you want inside?” Hunter asked looking at the house. It wasn’t that he felt bad about letting them in. He was simply curious.

“Lil’ bitch asking too many dam questions. Who we want is none of your dam business,” Nate snapped.

“How are you three together and not shooting at each other?” Hunter said turning back toward Nate.

Before he could see it coming, Hunter was answered with a back hand across his cheek. The impact knocked the wind out of him and lifted him off his feet. He flew across the sidewalk and off the curb. Like a lion who’d drawn first blood, Nate followed, fuming for more. Before Hunter regained is breath, Nate slammed his foot into the boy’s ribs. Hunter yelped. Looming above, Nate bent down. He brought his lips close to Hunter’s ear.  “Ask another dam question,” Nate whispered, “and watch what else I do, lil’ bitch.”

The blood in Hunter’s mouth was salty and warm. He swallowed as he rose to his feet. Brushing the dirt off his pants, he replied, “Fine. Let’s do it.”

“That’s a good boy,” Nate said as the other two laughed.


Hunter sat atop the old brick wall before dropping into the strange backyard. The plot was narrow and thirty feet deep. The un-gated, thick brick wall ran all around it, creating a green oasis in the middle of the city.

All the lights were off. Through the windows of the back door, Hunter could make out the green glow of a security pad on the kitchen wall. “One problem at a time,” Hunter mumbled to himself.

Hunter’s more pressing obstacle was the large, muscular dog asleep on the back porch steps. Hunter didn’t know dog breeds, but he knew this dog wasn’t a pit bull. All the gang bangers had Pits. Hunter was familiar with them. This dog had the muscles of a Pit, but its nose was pointy. Hunter had no doubt it was deadly. He scanned the yard for something, anything he could use against the beast if it awoke while he was creeping through its yard.

One of the three gang bangers in the alley nudged Hunter from behind. Hunter grabbed the wall tight to keep from falling forward and glared back.

“Hurry up, lil’ bitch,” Nate whispered.

“There’s a dog,” Hunter hissed loudly.

The three thug giants stared back at him with apathy.

Hunter shook his head in anger. He could see the fear in their faces. He could smell it oozing from him. They were too cowardly to do the deed themselves. That’s why they needed him. Not because they needed a guinea pig, but because something in that house terrified them.

Hunter looked along the wall. He spotted something he could use. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do. Confident, he let himself down the other side of the brick, trying not to make a sound. He grabbed a flat head, iron shovel that was leaning against the wall to the right. He gripped it tight with both hands, ready to swing it in case the dog woke up.

He tip toed through the yard, trying to keep down the squishing sound of his shoes in the mud.  He kept both eyes locked on the dog.  It lay on its stomach, snoring.  He timed his steps with the rise and fall of its belly. The animal looked peaceful, completely unaware. “Maybe spying is my thing?” he thoughts.

The dog stirred.

Hunter froze mid-step. He was close. If the dog awoke and came after him, there would be no escape. Hunter commanded his heart to stop pounding. He’d never owned a dog. He had no attachment to the beast. He inched forward another pace and wondered what having pets would be like. He thought he’d like having a dog, but not a big one like this one. Maybe a small one. But it would have to be smart. He’d have no patience for a stupid dog who slept through home invasions.

He was upon the beast now. He stood over it. He could see the breath flowing from its nostrils. He watched it snore, unaware of the danger. Hunter raised the shovel above his head with both hands until the blade was even with his eyes.  He inhaled deeply and then held the air in his chest. With all his might he released his breath and brought the blade down on the animal’s neck.  The sweep of the blade through the air and the muffled clink were the only sounds. There was no bark, no yelp. The animal’s eyes sprung open with terror. Its legs flailed and then went still.  Blood sprayed across Hunter’s legs. Hunter kept pushing on the shovel as it dug deep into the beast’s spine.

Hunter was disappointed.  It was the first time he’d taken a life.  He thought there would be more to it, more return on investment. It felt no different than killing rats in the courtyard of his apartment complex. It was mundane. Looking at the dog he wondered if it was more peaceful sleeping or in death. Which was better? He decided on death. It lasted longer.

Hunter tossed the shovel into the grass behind him and walked up the back steps, stepping over the dog’s corpse. He surveyed the back wall of the house. There was a strong looking door with six small windows in it and a small dead-bolt. He moved closer and looked through one of the glass pains. The alarm panel read “DISARMED.” He strained to see the dead-bolt. He couldn’t get a clear view, but it looked like a simple turn latch on the inside.  This all seemed to easy. Could he really just break a window and unlock the handle?

Hunter decided against it. He didn’t trust it. It was too easy. Nothing that easy went his way. To the left of the door was a thin grass alley that ran between the house and the brick wall. Tucker glanced down it. The other end was blocked at the front of the yard by a tall, black, iron gate. On the opposite side of the gate, he saw one of the three gangsters standing, arms crossed, glaring at him. Having no desire to have his every move scrutinized, Hunter chose not to investigate the alley.

Next to the door on the right, about three feet over, was a small, thin window several feet off the ground. Hunter deduced it probably sat above a sink. He slowly pulled over a black, metal patio chair that lightly scraped across the patio and stood on it. Pressing up with his palms, he tried to force the window open. To his surprise, it moved with ease.

This gave Hunter pause. What type of person felt so secure at night in downtown Baltimore that they didn’t lock their windows or set their alarm? Whose house was he breaking into exactly?

He hoisted himself up onto the window ledge with both hands and shimmied through the small window head first. Hunter slide across a white marble sink and crashed to the floor. He lay still on the black stone tile, waiting to see if anyone had heard his clumsy arrival. The house remained silent. He stood and took in his surroundings.

The kitchen was immaculate. There was a long black granite counter top under ornate white wooden and glass cabinets.  The counter ended in a massive silver refrigerator and freezer. In the middle of the room was a black granite kitchen island. Various pristine appliances were spread out along the counter-top: a large silver blender, a fancy looking coffee pot buttons all over it, a wooden block filled with gleaming silver knife handles.

Hunter stood and soaked it all in. He wondered what it was like to live in such a fancy castle. “These people get respect,” he thought, enviously. “I bet they have a usual.”

Beyond the kitchen was a large dining room, then a living space with comfortable couches and chairs facing stairs and a bathroom. Past the stairs was another living space and the front door.

Hunter spent time in each.  He was in awe of the pictures from strange places scattered through the rooms. He soaked in the radiance of the beautiful lamps. He ran his fingers along the soft rugs. The owners of this home knew luxury the likes of which Hunter had never seen. He felt like a five-year-old left alone to explore Disney. Everything was delicate, and strong, and valuable, and specifically placed.

He could have simply opened the front door and finished his work for the evening, but he wanted to see more. He wanted to know what treasurers the other floors held. Surely this was only the beginning. Turning away from the front of the house he quietly ventured up the stairs.

After the last step there was a hallway with two doors that led to another set of stairs. Each door opened to a large room that occupied half of the second story. One was an office. Excluding the front wall, which was dominated by two tall windows looking out onto the street, the room was wall to wall books in dark wooden shelves. The floor was matching tongue and groove flooring. There was a giant desk in the middle of the space with a leather rolling chair behind. There were no papers or computer on the desk, just a lone pen in a thin holder. Facing the desk were two identical wooden chairs. They were thin and straight.

The second room was a workout area. The floor was white, but padded. It gave slightly as Hunter walked across it. He paused to bounce on it. He’d never felt anything like it. The side walls were mirrors with a waist high brown hand rail that ran the length. In the far corner was a weight bench with a rack of free weights on either side. Just as Hunter was thinking about trying out the weight bench, his cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He took it out and read the text. It was Nate. “HURRY THE FUCK UP BITHC” it read.  Hunter ignored it.  He didn’t want the gang-bangers coming in until he’d taken in all there was to see in this magical place.

Hunter left the room, crept along the hall and continued up another flight. The third floor was not what he expected. It was one expansive room. The carpet was soft under his tennis shoes. It was difficult to tell in the dark, but the walls appeared to be some shade of pink. To his right was a king sized, white canopy bed overflowing with white rumpled sheets and pillows. On either side of the bed were small white end tables filled with knick-knacks, an alarm clock, and small jewelry boxes.  On the right side of the bed was another door. Hunter bet it led to a walk-in closet housed over the kitchen.

To Hunter’s the left was a white desk. On both sides of the desk were matching white bookcases filled with volumes of all sizes. Under the windows on the wall adjacent to the desk was a long, padded bench. Hunter thought about trying it out, but he was worried the three thugs would see him in the window. On the opposite wall from the desk there hung a huge flat screen TV. In front of it was a brown, leather couch with purple throw pillows.

Hunter couldn’t help himself.  He crashed onto the couch and stretched his arms along the back. He imagined what it would be like to watch a Ravens game on the massive screen while relaxing on the fabulous couch. He laid his head backwards and saw the railing for the steps that led to the fourth floor. He put his feet up on the small, round coffee table in front of him, closed his eyes, and laid down a quiet a-rhythmic beat on the leather with his fingers.

Another text buzzed in his pocket. He set forward and retrieved it. “WHERE THE FUCK R U?” it read. Nate again. Hunter put the phone back in his pocket and re-assumed his position of comfort, imagining again that the couch and TV was his.

A stirring to his right startled him. Hunter sat up straight, alert and ready to run. His heart was pounding. It was all he could hear. He slowly looked over toward the rustling. Then he saw. How had he missed it?  There was someone in the bed.

Hunter stood and crept over to the bed, doing his best spy walk. Mixed into the sheets and pillows was a girl, a spectacular girl. She was like painted glass, delicate and perfectly crafted. She had long blond hair and smooth, untouched skin. She was stunningly beautiful. She was a work of art, like a marble statue of a sleeping goddess.

Hunter stood still, admiring her. She couldn’t have been too much older than he was. He thought she should be put in a glass case and placed in a museum for the whole world to appreciate.

Thoughts began to collide in his mind, and his head hurt from the realization. He realized that to let in the three thugs meant violence for this house, and more importantly for her. There was no way he would allow that to happen. There was nothing else in the house so beautiful, so valuable as the creature in front of him, the perfect princess in the pink room.

They would spoil her, put their hands on her, ruin her. Violent men like them were always destroying beautiful things. Hunter knew he needed to prevent them from entering the house, but wasn’t sure how.

He stared again at the girl again, and absorbed her beauty, and the way the entire room accented her beauty. Determination built in his soul. Racing through scenarios and possibilities, a plan began to assemble itself in his mind.

Forgetting about exploring the fourth floor, Hunter strode back to the stairs. He paused before heading down. He needed a trophy. Something he could hold and remember the luxury and beauty of the magical castle.  He walked over to the first white book case and scanned the titles. He ran his fingers across the books, strumming their bindings.  His eyes fell on one that appealed to him: “The Talented Mister Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith. Hunter took it and then marched toward the stairs.

“All clear. Come in small window in back,” he texted as the entered the kitchen.

“OPEN THE FUCKING FRONT DOOR,” his cousin texted back.

“Cant.  Back window,” Hunter sent. Then he waited.

He heard them discuss the bloody dog. They were laughing. They thought it was funny. It wasn’t funny. Hunter grit his teeth. He prepared his mind.

Hunter heard a grunt as the first of the three giants lifted himself through the window.

“What if they don’t come in head first? What if they come in feet first?” Hunter worried for a brief moment, but it was too late to turn back now.

Hands shot through the open window and he knew who it was. One more second. “Wait for the 666 tattoo,” he told himself.

The Hispanic gang-banger’s head followed as hands shot forward toward the sink to break the fall.

Hunter’s anxious grip caused the metal kitchen knife to bruise his palm. As soon as the top of the thug’s head appeared, Hunter struck. He leapt up from his crouch next to the sink and stabbed the blade with a single, hard thrust into the base of the bangers skull. The man’s body went tense, then limp. Hunter pulled him smoothly through the window and onto the floor against the cabinets, partially hiding the body, and he returned to his crouch.

Unable to see what had happened to the first, the second thug grunted and wheezed as he lifted himself up in the same way the first had. Hunter’s plan was working perfectly.

Again, he waited silent and still until the man’s hands were planted on the sink and the back of his head was exposed. Again, with a single motion he drove the knife through the base of the man’s skull.  Again, the man fell without a sound.  Two down. Only Nate to go.

In the days to come, as he reflected on the night’s events, Hunter would wonder why he felt no remorse driving the knife through the base of his cousin’s skull. The first two he did not know and cared nothing for. But the third was kin. Ending Nate was easy, same as the other two, but it troubled him that he’d hesitated more when he killed the dog than he did when he spilled his family blood. Looking in the mirror later that morning, as he washed the blood spatter from his face, he was surprised by his lack of remorse. “Maybe this is my thing?” he asked himself. It came easy enough.

Before leaving, Hunter riffled through the pockets of the three men. He left their wallets, watches, knives, and guns. None of these things had any value to him. All he took were their cell phones. He needed proof of what he’d accomplished. Digging out the phones was messy work.  He slipped and slid in their blood as he turned their bodies over and searched their pockets.

Once the phones were in hand, Hunter stepped back to admire his work. Each gang wore different colors, but they all bled red. He felt like an artist. He needed to sign it. But how? He searched the room for something to use. Then it occurred to him. Like a kindergartner finger painting, he rubbed his fingers in the blood on the floor and then scrawled on the kitchen wall, “The Hunter Was Here!”

Hunter looked at the window, worried he might get hurt if his blood soaked hands and shoes slipped on the sleek sink. Then he laughed. “No need for a window when you can walk out the door,” he said aloud to the three dead men. Hunter strode over to back door, undid the latch, and stepped out into the night without looking back.

It was raining again.  The cool drops on his face soothed his heart and made him smile. He stretched his hands over his head and let the rain hit him in the face. He grabbed the patio chair, carried it to the back wall, and used it to help him climb over.


Abby’s eyelids were rough. Her throat tasted foul, probably from the late night coffee she’d downed just before going to sleep. She rolled her tongue in her cheek, hoping to generate some moisture. Still only partially conscious, she stretched out with her right hand, plodding the end table with her palm, searching for the blaring alarm clock. Her fingers connected with the plastic black box and, relying on muscle memory, she flicked the snooze switch.

Burying her face in the soft, fluffy pillows, she pondered staying in bed longer. Her hands found the covers and she tried to yank them up over her head, but they tangled in her legs. The pull left her right foot cold and exposed. She sighed and sat up.  No use fighting it now.

Before going downstairs in search of breakfast she slid into her soft robe and white, cushy slippers. She could hear commotion coming from below. It sounded like there was a construction crew in the kitchen. “What’s Daddy up to now?” she thought.

“Abigail dear,” her father called from his study as she passed the second floor. “Come in here for a minute, Sweets.”

She was irritated to be derailed. She hated being summoned, especially in the morning.

“My dear,” he said in his thick Louisiana accent. “I’m sorry to slow you, but you can’t go down stairs just yet.”

Abby leaned against the door frame and stared at him with apathy, communicating with a role of her eyes that she didn’t have time for this delay.

Even though it wasn’t yet seven in the morning, Abby’s father was already in a suit. She rarely saw him outside of one. As was his typical style, the black coat was draped across the back of his large leather chair, his red tie was loosened at the neck just a tad, and his sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. His head of security, Michael something-or-other, was sitting across from him.

Abby never bothered to learn the helps’ names. They were her father’s toys, none of her concern. In moments of honesty, she would admit that they made her angry. There was never a modicum of privacy with all of them flitting about.

“Miss Abigail,” the security man said, nodding to her with a tight smile. He wore a well-tailored grey suit, white shirt, and expensive looking black dress shoes. His jaw was strong and his hair cut tight. She hated that he would dare look at her. Who did he think he was?

She didn’t look at the security man. Instead raised an eyebrow, directing her disgust at her father.

Reading the impatience of her body language, her father spoke again. “Dear, do you have somewhere to be? What is the hurry to go downstairs?”

“I’ve got work today, Daddy,” she said with exhaustion. Then adding with opportunistic, artificial innocence, “But if the kitchen is closed I’d be more than happy to go back to bed and blow off the shop today.”

Her father leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. He was a fit man, but not large or muscular. Nothing visible about him was imposing.  “But Abigail,” he said with a smile, “what would people think?”

She grinned, “Maybe that a rich kid like me didn’t need a job?”

Her father smiled back. This conversation was a game they played routinely. Like studied chess masters, they both knew the coming moves. “But what about the plan, dear?” he said. Then he repeated each word with deliberate pause, “What about the plan?”

“I know, daddy,” she replied playfully. “The plan is important. The plan must be kept.”

“And what is the plan, Sweets?” he asked as if he’d never heard it before.

“Council, mayor, governor, president,” Abby chanted.

Her father repeated the words back slowly, with calculated purpose. “Council. Mayor. Governor. President.” Looking to his security guard he said, “Now Mr. Wellesley, don’t you think that is an excellent plan?”

“Yes, sir,” the security man snapped back. “An excellent plan.”

“And Sweets,” her father said leaning forward in mock confusion. “When exactly did this plan start?”

“Why, it started yesterday, Daddy,” Abby replied with a grin. She enjoyed this verbal play with her father. The answer was always “yesterday.” It was something her father had taught her when she was a little girl: always work like you’re playing catch up, especially when you’re killing the competition.

“Then you should absolutely go to work,” her father said smacking his desk with his hand. “Or what would the voters think?”

“This is why, dear father,” she said standing up straight like a soldier coming to attention, “I was headed downstairs. In order to arrive at work on time and impress the future voters who are already watching my every move, I must have a hearty breakfast.”

“Ahhh,” her father said, pointing two fingers at her like he always did when he was making a point.  “And there is the rub. You see, last night three very terrible men attempted to break into our kitchen. Thankfully the brave Mr. Wellesley was here to stop them.”

The security guard beamed with pride.

“Unfortunately,” her father continued in a disappointed tone, “he made quite a mess doing so. Thus our kitchen is unavailable until the cleaners are through.”

Curiosity raged in her gut. There were a thousand questions she wanted to ask. Who were they? Did they know who her father was? Did the security man fight them off hand-to-hand? What time was this at? How did she sleep through all the excitement?

She knew her father would give her nothing, so she didn’t bother interrogating him. Although this frustrated her, on the outside she maintained her composure. She decided to try and get something out of the situation. “Well if I can’t go into the kitchen,” Abby said, “Then I’m going to have to stop for some coffee and a danish at Spoons.”

“I guess that is true,” her father said, clearly curious at where this was headed.

“Sadly,” Abby said sticking her bottom lip out in a pout, “I do not have any cash. What is a future President of the United States to do?”

Her father laughed and then looked at Mr. Wellesley again and said, “Can you believe this? Just a few years ago she was a sweet little thing without a care in the world. Now she’s an eighteen-year-old shark, using blood and tragedy to her advantage. I’m so proud.”  He reached into his back pocket and produced two twenties.  Extending them to her he said, “Have fun, Sweets. But make sure you get to work on time.”

“Thanks Daddy!” she said taking the cash and then happily walking back toward the stairs.

“Oh and Sweets,” her father called behind her. “You’ll be taking Mr. Wellesley with you today. If these children were brazen enough to come in through my kitchen window, then they’re brazen enough to try and snatch my baby girl off the street.”

Abby groaned and hung her head in frustration, but she didn’t reply. She knew there was no use arguing. Her father’s men didn’t answer to her. The security guy would follow her regardless of what she said.


Abby hated the coffee house, but she put on a happy face. As her father had said, working here wasn’t about the money. They had money. Working here was about resume building. Few stories played better than a wealthy girl sacrificing her time and energy to volunteer at a place designed to take care of suffering citizens.

The name of the coffee house was, “Today Free. Tomorrow Sold.”  The well intending owner, a fiery redhead named Meg, had hoped to create a space where anyone could get a cup of coffee at any time, even if they couldn’t pay. Meg was a moderately successful artist and ex-school high school English teacher who wanted to change the city. Her idea was that if you couldn’t pay today, you would pay later when you were able. She hoped people would pass the kindness forward. Had it not been for a twenty-something hipster following who thought the concept was cool, the homeless of Baltimore would have drained the shop dry and sent Meg into bankruptcy years ago.

Abby looked out over the shop. There was nothing out of the ordinary for a Saturday morning. Three guys with overgrown breads and ironic hats sat at different tables typing away on their laptops. A sweating, overweight high-school boy with bad skin tried to make conversation with an average looking girl who didn’t realize until a few minutes ago that she was on an early morning date. Stinky Joe was half-asleep at the corner table. Crazy Will and Spencer the Laughing Bum were outside arguing about something inconsequential. These weren’t their real names, of course. These were the nicknames Abby gave them to pass the time. Then there was her father’s security guard. He sat at attention, taking up a table by the door, pretending to read the City Paper. Abby allowed herself a moment to glare at him with disdain.

The fresh pot of coffee finished percolating. She took it off the burner and crossed the room to refill Stinky Joe’s cup. He smelled like vomit and mold. “Thanks,” he mumbled through his haze.

She smiled back and said, “You’re welcome, Joe.” She knew he couldn’t remember her name, even though in more lively moments, he’d introduced himself to her over and over. “How are you feeling today?” she asked. “Um. Oh. Um. Fine. Fine,” he mumbled back.

The bell at the door rang, signaling a new customer’s arrival. Abby turned to look and see who was coming in. A scrawny African-American kid in a blue t-shirt and black running pants stepped into the shop and looked around. He wore a grey, ratty backpack. Abby laughed to herself at how her security detail looked the kid up and down, intensely assessing whether or not he was a threat.

“Seat yourself,” Abby called, heading back to the counter. She returned the coffee pot to its burner and grabbed a menu.  “No way this kid’s paying,” she thought to herself as she crossed the room to the table he’d chosen. When she arrived at the table, she was surprised to see the kid reading a book. “Can I get you anything?” she asked as she lay the menu in front of him.

The boy looked up. Abby noticed a moment of hesitation in his eyes, but it vanished quickly. He put the book he was reading down and picked up the menu. “Um,” he said focusing on the menu, “I heard people can eat for free in here?”

“Coffee’s free,” Abby said, distracted by the book. “The food costs.” She couldn’t stop looking at it. It was “The Talented Mister Ripley.”  She’d read it. Knew it well.  What kept her attention was something familiar about that copy. She couldn’t help staring.

The boy saw her staring.  He placed his hand on the book without breaking his gaze.  “Just a coffee then,” he said looking her in the eyes firmly.

Abby looked back at him puzzled. She knew there were pieces to be put together, but she couldn’t get them to fit. “I’ll be right back,” she said.

She grabbed a mug from behind the counter and filled it. Then she returned to the unsettling kid. She put the mug on the table and sat down across from him. He was reading the book again. He didn’t acknowledge her.

“Are you reading that for school?” she asked.

“Nope,” he said plainly without looking up.

There was something about it.  She just couldn’t get her mind to wrap around it.  She didn’t understand why it was bothering her.  It was just a beat-up paperback. “Did you get that from the library?” she asked.

“Nope,” the kid said again without looking up.

She huffed. She didn’t like being ignored. She wasn’t use to it. She was beautiful. She knew it. Usually boys like this one went out of their way to stare at her, to talk to her, to make her notice them. Here she was giving this one generous attention and he didn’t seem to care.  It was off setting. “Can I see it?” she asked.

The boy slowly closed the book, and placed it between them on the table, and looked her in the eyes. His dark brown eyes pierced her. They reminded her of her father. There was far more growing inside this egg than the outer shell revealed. He drummed his fingers on the top of the book in a strange beat absent of rhythm. After a few seconds he slid the book to her with both hands.  He continued lightly drumming on the table top.

Abby picked it up and flipped through the pages rapidly. There wasn’t anything special about it. Then something inside the front cover caught her eye. She opened it wide. There in the bottom corner was her small stamp: “Property of Abigail Deces”.

She drew a breath and placed the book on the table, leaned back in her chair, and folded her arms across her chest. “Now where exactly did you get that?” she said nodding at the book.

Cold, without fear or menace, the boy replied, “I took it from your room last night while you were sleeping.” His face showed no malice.

Abby’s eyebrows shot up. She tilted her head sideways. “You did?” Abby said surprised by his forthrightness.

She laughed to herself. She was safe in this public place, and she didn’t know why, but she liked him. Same as always, it’s the dangerous ones that seem to draw people in. Maybe it was his confidence. Or maybe it was his fearless honesty.

“What exactly were you doing in my room last night?” she said coyly. She turned her head slightly to make sure that Daddy’s body guard was watching the conversation from the corner.

“Just looking around,” the boy said with a grin.”

Abby leaned forward across the table. “You see that man over there by the door,” she whispered fiercely.  “All it would take is one word from me and he’d come over here and tear your head from your neck.”

The boy leaned forward too, unshaken by her threat. Their noses were only inches apart. She could feel the warmth of his breath on her lips. “And then you would get blood on your book,” he said with a smile, calling her bluff.

She laughed, leaned back, and folded her arms again. “How exactly did you get out of my house last night?”

He mirrored her body language. “So, now you believe that I was in your house?”

“You have my book.”

“I took your book and walked out the back door.”

“No, no,” she said. “How’d you get away from Wellesley over there?” She motioned toward the security man with her head.

“I’ve never seen him before,” the boy said without looking at the man by the door.

She couldn’t tell if he was playing a game or telling the truth.  She raised an eyebrow and asked, “You didn’t see him kill your three friends in my kitchen.”

“I saw three men and a dog die last night,” the boy said coldly. “But Mr. Fancy-Suit-No-Tie over there wasn’t around.”

“Can you prove that?”  Abby asked with doubt.

The boy grinned with pride before moving. After a brief moment, he picked up his backpack off the floor, sat it in his lap, and unzipped the top compartment holding it open, but not letting her see.

“Why do I need to prove it to you? Won’t you be a little freaked out to find out the proof, and really understand that I stood in your room last night, sat on your couch, read your book?” He finished by nodding to the book still on the table.

“I’m not worried. Not even a little. I can guarantee that whatever happened last night will never happen again.”

Hunter’s mouth curled disbelief. He wondered how she could be so sure. She didn’t seem to be bluffing, or trying to intimidate him. She was just making a statement. He set the bag on the table and removed his hands.

She had to stand to look inside. Then she looked at him with a puzzled look.

“What would drug dealing gangers never be without?”

Smiled from ear to ear. It was her first honest smile of the morning. She extended her hand to him, “My name is Abigail. You can call me Abby.”

The boy shook her hand gently. “Hunter,” he said.

“I get off in four hours,” Abby said sweetly, holding his hand in both of hers. “I’d love for you to meet me at my house. I think my father would love to have a chat with you.”


The day droned on for Abby.  She couldn’t wait to see how her father would handle the revelation of Hunter. The minute the clock clicked one in the afternoon, she tossed her apron behind the counter and walked out of the shop. She moved across the inner harbor at such a brisk pace, the security guard struggled to keep up.

As she approached her house, she didn’t see Hunter waiting. “That little jerk went in without me,” she complained aloud to herself.

“What was that?” Mr. Wellesley called from behind her.

“Oh nothing,” she said with glee.  Then she added with a giggle, “You’ll see.”

She threw open the front door. Without breaking stride, she headed up the stairs. She found her father lying on the weight bench, doing a slow rep bench press, two fifty pound weights on each end. Hunter stood behind him in the spotter’s position. She looked at Hunter with disappointment. “I thought I told you to wait for me outside,” she said curtly.

Hunter smiled innocently back as if he didn’t understand what she was talking about, then added a wink.

She glared at him. She didn’t like being disobeyed.

Abby’s father did one final rep, placed the bar back in its holder, and sat up to face his daughter. “Now Sweets,” he said catching his breath, “Don’t be mad at the young lad. He was standing outside and I had him brought in. Couldn’t have him just sitting on the curb in front of the house. Besides, we’ve had a very nice chat. You did the right thing sending him to me.”

Her father looked past her to the security guard who was moving slowly up the stairs. “Ah, Mr. Wellesley,” he said pointing at the man with two fingers. “The hero of the house. Come in. Come in.”

Taking great pride at being called a hero by his boss, Mr. Wellesley marched into the room. He stood with his feet shoulder-width apart and his hands behind his back in a Parade Rest position. “Yes, sir,” he said respectfully.

“Did you know, Sweets,” Abby’s father continued, “That Mr. Wellesley used to work for the C-I-A?”  He paused on each letter, to accent them.

“Why no, Daddy,” Abby responded innocently, “I did not know that.”

“And before that, Sweets,” her father continued, “he was a marine.”

Abby crossed the room to stand next to her father.  She looked the security guard up and down. “Now I can see that, Daddy. He looks like a marine.”

“He was. He was indeed,” her father said in his thick southern drawl.  “A very good marine too. Lots of medals and such.”

“Hmm,” Abby said taking great joy in this game. She had guessed the outcome from the moment she looked in Hunter’s bag. There was no mystery for her as to what was to happen next; but she loved how her father built anticipation for no other reason than his own amusement. He was like a cat with a mouse. It was unfortunate for Mr. Wellesley that he did not appear to have yet realized that he was the ill fated rodent.

“Did I tell you, Sweets, all about what Mr. Wellesley did for us last night?” her father said, not taking his eyes off the security guard.

“You did,” Abby said. “You most certainly did.”

“This I didn’t tell you, I’m sure. Do you know what he did that was so astute? Really above and beyond,” her father said.

“Why no, Daddy? What did he do that was so smart?”

“He emptied the three robber’s pockets for me. He brought me their wallets, and some rolls of cash, and even some small packets of drugs. Said he wanted to run a check on their identities, to make sure we were safe from further retaliation.”

“How can we thank him enough. Bad enough to have thieves, but drugs? Daddy, drugs? In our house?” she said with childlike surprise, savoring the growing tension.  Drops of sweat were forming on Mr. Wellesley’s brow.

“They were indeed,” her father said. “In our house. He was a hero last night. He took care of everything. But, there is one thing that has puzzled me, Sweets. Just one thing. It’s a small thing really.”

“What’s that, Daddy?”

“Well, Sweets, they didn’t have any cell phones. Mr. Wellesley searched and searched, but none were to be found. Have you ever known a drug dealer to go without a cell phone? I mean, that’s the one link to his livelihood”

Mr. Wellesley looked over his shoulder toward the stairs. Two more men from his team of security guards, both in suits exactly like his, had silently taken up a strategic position in the small hallway behind him. They were blocking any hope of escape. Wellesley nodded to himself and looked forward again. His lips moved into a tight, small line of resolve. He understood now.

“It was this fine young man here that solved the mystery for me,” Abby’s father continued. “He brought me this lovely bag of phones and explained everything.”  Reaching under the weight bench he retrieved the three cell phones. He tossed two at Mr. Wellesley’s feet, but held onto one, lifting it up in the air as if he were examining an alien artifact.  “I was shocked,” he said. “Just plain shocked by this young man’s story.”

“It is shocking,” Abby said with a wide eyed smile, staring at Mr. Wellesley.

“And this made me think,” her father said. “If it was he,” gesturing with the phone to point at Hunter, “who was here to collect the phones, where exactly was Mr. Wellesley last night?”

“That is an excellent question, Daddy,” Abby said.

“So I began looking through the phones. I thought, maybe I’ll find an answer in these magical phones. And you know what? I found something.”

“Oh Daddy. That’s wonderful,” Abby said, smiling at the security guard. “Tell me what you found, Daddy. Please tell me.”

“I’ll show you,” Abby’s father said. “Watch this.” Then with is thumb, he gently touched the screen of the phone in his hand. A buzz went off in the security guard’s pocket. The two men in the hall inched forward; but before they could pounce, Abby’s father reached down with the speed of a pouncing cheetah. He dug his hand into a small white towel balled at his feet. Just as quickly, he popped back up to a sitting position. He extended a hand to the guard standing directly behind him. Without a word, the guard handed him a slender black barrel.

Mr. Deces slowly rose with a black revolver in his hand and screwed on the silencer.

He walked forward, arm extended out in front of him, until the barrel of the silenced pistol bumped against Wellesley’s forehead. Both men’s gaze never broke contact, and without a blink or pause, he fired a single shot. A muffled puffing sound and an orange flash threw Mr. Wellesley’s body back into the corner of the room.

Abby looked into the mirror on the wall across from them at Hunter. The boy hadn’t flinched at the gun shot. She smiled at him with respect, one predator to another.

“Good help is so hard to find these days,” her father said standing.  “Gentlemen,” he called to the two men in the hallway. “Please call the cleaners back. It appears this morning when they were working on the kitchen, they missed a body.” He extended his hand and the closest guard took the pistol.

He then turned to Hunter and extended his hand for a shake. “I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced,” he said. “My name is Ignatius. Ignatius Deces. My friends call me Iggy. But you can call me Sir. I will assume that you are “The Hunter”, referred to by the message eloquently scribbled in blood.”

Hunter took Mr. Deces’ hand and shook it firmly. “Hunter Stockton, Sir,” the boy replied.

“Well, Hunter,” Mr. Deces continued as he turned and walked toward his study.  “How would you like a job?” He took a seat behind his desk and swiveled in his large, leather chair to face the doorway as Hunter entered the room.

“That would be excellent sir, are you offering me a job?” Hunter said.

“Yes, my boy, yes I am,” Deces said with a smile.

Hunter and Abby followed Mr. Deces down the hall. “I’d like that very much. I’m your boy,” Hunter said.

Mr. Deces smacked his office desk with his hand. “Excellent!” he exclaimed. Then pointing two fingers at Hunter, he continued, “Welcome to the family. I’ve got some big plans, and you are the perfect person. We need to work on your signature though,” he leaned back in his chair and placed his hands on his head. “The whole writing in blood thing is a messy business.  Have you thought about business cards?” He finished with a grin.

Abby moved to stand behind her father’s chair. “Oh I like that, Daddy,” she said. “Simple. Just with the name ‘Hunter’ on them. Maybe on white linen stock?”

“Beautiful idea, Sweets. I’ll have some made up right away.”

Hunter’s heart tingled in his chest. He drummed his fingers on his pants legs. He knew that finally, at long last, he had found his thing, and he was going to earn some respect.

A Flair for the Theatrical


June 3rd, 2005

Chris walked up to the mountain of a man standing on the corner. The giant wore a long black trench coat, a black t-shirt, black cargo pants, and matching black military boots. His beard was thick and curly, but his hair was shaved close to his scalp.  Chris looked up into his dark eyes and said, “You realize that this isn’t the best corner to stand on, right?”

“It, in fact, is the ideal corner.  It is well marked, and in close proximity to our destination,” the man replied without acknowledging Chris’ presence.

“I know, but others will suspect that you are up to something.”

Ivan made a grand show of looking around, twisting his head, leaning over, straining to look up and down the streets. “I see no one, anywhere, of whose opinion I am the least bit concerned.” Ivan locked eyes with the smaller, thin, young man. He sized his escort up. Chris’ hair was high and tight. He wore a crisp pink polo shirt and blue jeans. He stood straight, like a man used to standing at attention. Ivan snorted in condescending amusement. “I assume you are my local expert?”

“Yes, sir. Name’s Chris,” Chris said extending his hand.

Ivan sighed and looked off into the sky. “Your name is unimportant. You won’t live long enough for it to be worth remembering, Gracanjo.” Ivan sniffed the air.

“I might surprise you,” Chris retorted with a smile.

Ivan sniffed the air. “You smell new.” He sniffed again. “And unwise. Where is your elder?”

“He said this wasn’t really his scene,” Chris said with a grin. “He’s got better things to do than be your errand boy.”

Ivan laughed. “But you do not, I see. Errand Boy it is then. Or just Boy. Yes, small and young Gracanjo. From now on, to the Rothman you are ‘Boy.’”

“Are you ready to go?” Chris said, rolling his eyes. Darryl, his partner, had warned him that Ivan Rothman was an ass.

“I have been waiting on you, boy,” Ivan corrected, accentuating Chris’ new nickname.

Chris rolled his eyes. “This way,” he said as he walked down the street with his hands  shoved his hands into his pockets.

Ivan spun on his heel, whipping his long black coat around behind him and moving into step behind Chris.

They walked away from the lights of the city, into an abandoned industrial area.  Tall vacant warehouses and steel mills created long sheer valleys of sheet metal siding, broken every so often by an empty loading dock or decrepit dumpster that served no purpose.

They turned right at the next corner and headed for a windowless door that was flush against the side of the building. The door was held shut by a large key padlock.

Chris knocked and then stepped back to wait.

They stared at the door together.

Ivan huffed with impatience.

“Be patient,” Chris said.

“You, boy, are supposed to be my local expert. You have one job. Only one. Escort me. Any you, boy, have escorted me to a closed door.”

“Just be patient,” Chris said, then he knocked again.

“The boy is a terrible escort,” Ivan said under his breath.

More minutes passed. There was no sound. The only light was a dim glow from a street lamp that repeated the same process every 30 seconds of warming to its maximum brightness and then shutting off completely.

Ivan shuffled his black leather boots on the sidewalk, looked down at Chris, then back up to the rusted metal door and said “Contrico tempore!”

Chris laughed. “I don’t know what you just said, but just wait, okay?”

“The Rothman hates to wait,” Ivan grumbled crossing his arms across his bulging chest. “We should break in.”

“Listen,” Chris said rubbing his hair with both hands, “I was told you knock and you wait. So we have knocked and now we are going to wait.”

“Boy? Are you saying that you have never been here before?”

“Of course I’ve never been here. I don’t hang out in places like this.”

“You, boy, are the worst escort I’ve ever had – and I’ve had a lot of escorts. Once a stupid Gracanjo got me lost in the catacombs of Calcutta for two years. I abandon him there to play alone with the rats.”

Chris stepped forward and pounded on the steel door a third time. He screamed, “Hey! Open up!”

“You are wasting my time, boy. You should not dare to waste my friend’s time like this. He will not be as kind as I am being right now, boy.”

“Where is your friend, anyway? I thought we were here for him,” Chris said.

“He likes to make an entrance,” Ivan replied coldly.

The door scraped open. Ivan laughed as he and Chris realized that the lock holding the door shut was a fake, held against the door by a simple magnet.  They could  have pulled it open at any time.

On the other side of the door was a bald tattooed man with sleepy eyes.  “Head to through the doors at the back into the next building,” he muttered looking back over his shoulder.

They walked in silence for more than a minute until coming to an open doorway. Above the door a hand scribbled sign said “All Comps MUST regester with Boomer B4 fitin”.

Ivan stopped and pronounced the words on the sign. “All comps must re-gester with Boomer, bah, roh, before fit-in?”

Chris corrected, “All competitors must register with Boomer before fighting. I assumed you could read, old man.”

“I can read. I can read twenty-seven languages. I can read languages you will never have the privilege of seeing. I read can read languages, boy, that are so old they are lost to history and only exist in my mind. But that gibberish,” Ivan said pointing angrily at the sign, “is not writing.”

“Follow me,” Chris said shaking his head as he stepped through the doorway into another massive building.

At the near end to the left was an open garage door wide enough for several trucks to drive through.  Across a space that seemed the size of a basketball court stood the far wall that stretched two stories tall. The rest of the building stretched out to the right in an open expanse at least twice the width of the old steel mill.

Chris and Ivan crossed a large portion of the empty space and proceeded toward the milling crowd. Chis stopped just short of the press of people and looked up in frustration. He turned to Ivan and said “Everyone here is huge. I can’t see anything through the crowd.”

Ivan looked out at the crowd. “Maybe you are just small, boy.” Ivan peered over the heads of the mass of men.  “I speculate that Boomer is that direction,” he said, pointing through the crowd.

Chris started weaving his way through a packed crowd of men and women, all sizes and builds.  No one seemed to mind as he reached his arm through small gaps of elbows and muscles to push open a path to where he hoped Boomer was.  Ivan followed as closely as possible, and from anyone looking on from above they would have seen a close cropped head of black hair part the crowd like a boat in the water. Where Chris had passed through the crowd almost unnoticed, Ivan was assaulted by sinister stares, as if they were estimating the price of a sow at the state fair before an auction.

Chris came to an abrupt halt to keep from bumping into the tattoo of the Punishers skull on the hair covered bare back of a man in front of him. The man towered above Chris. Chris looked up at the Punishers head, back at Ivan’s forehead where his hairline ended in a point, and back at the Punishers head. “Wow, he’s almost got you beat.  Must be six and a half?”

After 30 seconds, the beast of a man moved away to reveal a small table built of stacked plastic crates. Behind the table, stood a stocky short bald man. The bald man finished counting through twenty dollar bills, snapped a large rubber band around the roll, and yelled, “NEXT!”

Chris stepped forward.

“New guy.” he growled in frustration, “I ain’t got time.”

Chris looked the man in the eyes. “I assume you are Boomer?”

The man turned his massive forearm over to show the underneath side where a fire red tattoo in calligraphy font read BOOMER.

Chris tilted his head sideways, like a dog trying to identify a new sound. “We are supposed to see you if we want to pay to fight?”

“Yeah?” Boomer let his eyes slowly move from the top of Chris’ head to his feet and then back to meet his eyes. “Are you sure about this? People don’t like lame ducks wasting their time.”

“Oh, no, not for me. I am paying for someone else to fight.”

Boomer eyed Ivan and mumbled, “Not bad, what’s your name.”

Ivan stood straighter that he had been and his voice resonated, “I am the Rothman. You have never seen the likes of me.”

“Is he for real?” the bald man said to Chris.

Chris replied, “That’s not the guy. That’s the guy’s friend.”

“We are not friends,” Ivan said to himself.

“The guy is on his way,” Chris explained.

“Fine.  One hundred dollars in twenty dollar bills only and a name.”

Chris leaned sideways to reach into his pocket and extract a wad of cash, handing it to Boomer.

“Name?” Boomer said as he counted the cash.

“Ivan, what’s your friends name?” Chris asked.

“Lawson. Today it shall be Lawson,” Ivan said with authority.

“Spell it, ” Boomer demanded.

Ivan pronounced each letter as if it caused him pain. “L, a, w, s, o, n.”

Boomer looked up and said “Fine. Lawson.” Then looking past Ivan and Chris he yelled, “NEXT.”

Ivan, indignant with the lack of respect from Boomer, said, “Have you no interest in the capability of the man we will be presenting? He will non provocation patior.”

Boomer looked at Chris with question in his dull eyes, exasperated by the two men in front of him.

“Uh, what Ivan means to say is, don’t you want to know how good he is?”

“I mean to say what I said, boy,” Ivan snapped.

“What Ivan’s getting at is that Lawson will not be happy if he shows up to fight someone that is too easy.”

“Too easy?” Boomer asked surprised by the request. Most newbies wanted the easiest fight they could get.

“Death must be on the line,” Ivan said coldly.

Boomer closed his eyes and sighed. “Ok, fine, if you want to pay an extra one thousand dollars I can put Lawson at the end of the night. He’s fight the champ. Otherwise he fights his way through the ranks just like everyone else.”

Chris turned over his clump of twenty dollar bills and dropped them on the table.  Then he leaned to reach into the other pocket and pulled out another fistful of twenty dollar bills and dropped them on the table. “That should do it. What time is the fight?”

Boomer looked up at Chris with disbelief. “Are you for real? What is it with you two? Can’t you just sit down and wait your turn like everyone else.”

“The Rothman does not wait in line,” Ivan said dismissively.

“Shit. Fine,” Boomer said. “Each fight lasts no more than ten minutes, last fight starts promptly at two.” Then once again Boomer looked past them and screamed, “NEXT!”

They turned and pushed back through the crowd together. Chris looked up at Ivan and said, “This is going to be a long night.”

When they arrived at an open area, they stopped. Ivan surveyed the crowd again. “How many warriors will die tonight, boy?” he asked..

“No one dies. This is the MMA. Ultimate Fighting stuff..”

“Why are they allowed to call it ‘ultimate’ if no one dies? It can’t be ‘ultimate’ unless it is to the death.”

“It’s a league. This is where it starts. Then you work your way up to the championship.”

“This is dumb. You are a terrible escort, boy.”

“You said your friend, uh, Lawson, wanted a real challenge. This is the biggest human challenge there is in the States.”

Ivan snorted in retort, unimpressed. Chris looked around and was satisfied that he could see the doors and the crowd, as well as the raised section of the floor that served as a ring. He glanced toward the wide garage door at the far end of the space wondered how many shades would be coming in later to feed off of the hate and pain that this old steel mill would contain tonight. Chris leaned to a woman to his right and asked, “So, how does this work?”

She looked toward Chris and her arching eyebrows made the studs pierced through her forehead stand straight out. Her hair was dyed purple and braided into six strands that hung to her shoulder.

“First time, huh?”

“Yeah, this is new to me.”

“So, okay,” She lifted her arm to point toward Boomer, accenting the tattoo of a snake that wriggled its way from shoulder to palm. “At the beginning of every match, Boomer will announce the record for each fighter along with the shortest time that it has taken to beat each fighter. If it’s a first timer, he’s called a ‘gimme’ and he doesn’t have a time.  The amount of money each fighter wins is proportionate to how strong his record is and how fast the fight goes.”

“So, a first timer doesn’t have a time to beat to get a payout?”

“First timers don’t normally win, but if they do, they win the max payout for the fight.”

“Huh. And when does the timer start?”

“The timer starts when both fighters say they are ready.”

“What if things get out of hand?”

“Out of hand? It always gets out of hand.  But, the rules are pretty simple. Don’t bite or scratch. No weapons or anything like that. And if things get too ‘out of hand’, Boomer and his boys step in.  But it never goes that far. Once you have seen what his boys do, you don’t act out.”

Ivan leaned close to Chris.  “Go to a phone and put the number ‘2’ into Lawson’s little black messaging box.”

“It’s called a pager,” Chris mumbled as he turned and walked toward the exit to look for a pay phone.

“I don’t care, boy” Ivan said, watching the ring as the first fight began.

The night moved fairly quickly.  Fights lasted anywhere from less than ten seconds to the full ten minutes.  The fights that “lasted out” were judged by Boomers guys and they decided the winner.There was one fighter that clearly was the “One to Beat”.

“Boy, clarify something for me.?” Ivan said as Boomer’s boys dragged an unconscious man from the ring.


“The hairy beast that we were behind in line, he is the crowd’s chosen, right?”

“You mean the crowd favorite. Yes, he seems to be.”

“His name is ‘Razor’?”

“Yeah. You think Lawson can take him.”

Ivan laughed. Ignoring Chris’ question, he continued, “Why would a warrior name themselves after something so small?””

Chris clamped his eyes close in disbelief. “I, I don’t know” he stuttered with frustration. “It’s scary. Razor is a scary name.”

“This is stupid. I miss Rome,” Ivan said. “The Romans knew how to hold a fight.”

Chris looked at Ivan in confusion. “Who are you? And who is this Lawson? Why are we here? This all seems, uh, off mission. This is off mission.”

“Ha!” Ivan laughed, smacking his leg. “The Gracanjo speaks of mission. What does the boy know of mission? Ha, ha. You will not live long enough to understand mission. You are like a disposable rag.”

“I don’t have to take this shit,” Chris said angrily, standing to leave.

“Alright, please stay,” Ivan relented, still laughing. “Lawson and I, we have deep history. We have an arrangement. We do things for each other. This is a favor I can do for him, he likes to be challenged.  I also feel that the time has come to keep him proxime.”

Chris sat back down and sighed.

“But I fear this Razor will not be a challenge enough. Lawson may think of it as an insult.”

“But Razor is huge,” Chris said in disbelief. “And he’s fought twice tonight and no one’s even laid a hand on him.”

“Veritas,” Ivan replied.

“And you don’t think he’ll be a challenge?”

“This is what I said. Yes.” Ivan pointed to the digital clock hanging from a pole on the corner of the ring. It read 1:55. “We shall know soon.”

Chis began looking around excited to see this Lawson he’d waited all night for. “Maybe he’s here, and we just don’t see him yet?”

Ivan shook his head slowly.  “No, you will know when he arrives.. He has a certain theatrici.”


“He is not known for discretion, he can be, um, theatrical.”

“Like how?” Chris said with a curious grin.

“As he becomes more acclimated to current culture, he takes inspiration from what he sees. I believe that your World Wrestling Federation has given him many ideas.  For a while he would rip a shirt off before a competition and walk around the ring waving his hands in the air for the crowd to cheer. Once he claimed to be the Ultimate Warrior, but he found that there was another competitor by that name. Before that, years ago when an actor named John Wayne was popular, Lawson liked to enter fights on a horse. He wor  leather and boots and a large cowboy hat. His most recent fascination has been with your Terminator movies.  He finds it difficult to separate veritas from falsum. He has requested me to find him Arnold Schwarzenegger because he believes the metal robot to be a fair challenge in single combat.” The clock turned 1:56. “He said he would even allow Arnold to bring two large guns to the battle field.”

Chris laughed in disbelief, “Well, if he doesn’t show, we will have a lot of angry people to deal with.”

They waited longer, watching the clock to tick another minute..

Boomer pressed through the crowd and appeared in front of Chris. “So, new guys, here’s how it works..  If your guy doesn’t show by two, one of you are going to stand in his place. And then, if you don’t last at least more than sixty seconds with Razor, I’m going to turn away and whatever happens, happens. This crowd doesn’t take kindly to waiting an entire night for some lame waste of skin an’ bones.” Boomer gazed up at Chris, eyes burning with anger.

Chris’ soft blue eyes showed humility as he leaned over to look close into Boomer’s face. “He will be here, or I will stand in his place.” Chris replied timidly.

The gentle eyes transformed into a deep dark blue, and Chris growled “And if I do, you won’t be disappointed.”

Ivan laughed and smacked Chris on the back in approval. “Look at the boy,” he said proudly to Boomer. “He has giant stones, no? I love it!” He squeezed Chris’ shoulder and said, “You are my favorite Gracanjo since Augusta of Carthage.” Then turning back to Boomer, Ivan added. “New deal. If my friend does not show, I will snap this Razor’s neck and then come for you.” Ivan’s smile filled his face. He drew close to the now unsure Boomer, “Because you do not threaten the Rothman and live. Are we clear?”

Boomer shook his head and held his hands up defensively.  “I just don’t want to disappoint the crowd, okay,” he said backing away. “These people are animals.”

The clock flipped to 1:59, and Boomer made his way to the center of the ring.

He held his hands up and the crowd grew silent.

“Now for our main event,” Boomer screamed. “In this corner I give you our champion, Razor!” The crowd responded with wild cheers.  “Forty seven fights and still undefeated.”

Cheers and applause erupted again until Boomer again held his hands up in the air.

The clock turned 2:00.

“Our second contestant, for the first time in our ring, is -.”

A burst of sound interrupted the introduction. It seemed like rolling thunder moving down the street until entering the building at the far end. When it cleared the garage doors, the roar became a deafening rumble that rolled through the warehouse as an all-black Harley Davidson Iron 883 Sportster.  Closer to the crowd the bike slowed and gurgled its way to the edge of the audience.  Tires as wide as Razor’s arms slowly pressed their way into the edge of the crowd.

The rider on the black motorcycle was bald and dressed in a black t-shirt that stretched over lean muscles.  He wore black boots, faded jeans, and large mirrored sunglasses. He held one finger in the air.

Boomer looked over to Chris.

Chris looked at Ivan.

Ivan shook his head one time, yes.

Energized by the showmanship, Boomer screamed, “And facing Razor is the undefeated, the unknown, the unseen, Lawson!”

The crowd cheered wildly in response. Loving the attention, Lawson gunned the engine of his bike again. “To the death!” he screamed with joy.

“Not to the death,” Ivan screamed back.

Lawson turned to the stands, furious. “Not to the death?” he screamed at Ivan.

“No killing,” Ivan yelled, apologetically.

“Gamoti poutana sou!” Lawson screamed at Ivan, enraged.

“Ay gamisou!” Ivan screamed back, standing and throwing his hands into the air.

With the exchange over, Lawson faced forward once again and Ivan returned to his place.

“What did he say?” Chris asked, in awe of the size and power of Ivan’s friend.

“It translates in your language as something not said in front of women.”

Chris laughed. “What did you say back?”

“I told him to go and do the same,” Ivan said with a smile.

Lawson turned his attention to Razor. He deep voice boomed over the top of the crowd, “You who I am not allowed to kill, prepare yourself to face me!”

The crowd again cheered.

Lawson again yelled across the noise, “What has been the shortest time before you have been knocked down?”

Boomer yelled back smugly, “It took Gracie one minute fifty five seconds to knock him down with a kick to the face, and Razor still jumped back up and beat his ass. He’s UN DE FEATED! Now are you ready?”

Ivan whispered to Chris, “Ha, ha. Is Gracie his wife, and she kicked him and knocked him down?”

Chris shook his head, “No. Wow, you really are out of touch. Royce Gracie is the best – ah, forget it.”

Lawson reached down to change a setting on the dash of the bike and yelled “You say one five five?” and continued fidgeting.

“Then I am ready!” and he pressed play on the bikes radio.

“Bring it bitch!” Razor yelled in response.

The crowd responded again. They were frenzied with excitement. This was the kind of match they longed for.

“Ok. Start the clock!” Boomer yelled, stepping out of the ring. .

The digital clock switched to a timer that began spinning in hundredths of a second.

As the first second showed, speakers on the bike started to blare a high guitar solo repeating the same progression of notes in a rhythmic pattern.

The bike revved and started to slowly part its way through the crowd.

The sound system on the bike blared the same clear guitar, but now there were added vocals chanting in the background, “Ah ah aaa ah, uh aah aaah ah uh ah ah”.

The clock read 00:10:21.

The black bike reached the edge of the crowd and the motor cut off, but the song continued.


The entire crowd joined the music and at the end of the chant they yelled “Thunder!”

Lawson kicked the stand for the bike and slowly stood and swung his leg over the back fender. He stood to full height and towered above the surrounding spectators.

Over two hundred voices continued to chant, “Uh aah aaah ah, THUNDER!”

One by one, he pulled his fingers from the leather gloves of both hands and neatly placed them on the seat.


Two hands reached up to pull off dark sunglasses, and set them on top of the gloves.

Lawson turned to face Razor. Razor’s face was contorted with impatience and he paced back and forth.


The voice from the speaker screamed “I was caught, in the middle of a railroad track.”

The crowd chanted along “THUNDER!” while pumping their fists in the air.

“I looked around, and I knew there was no turning back.”



Lawson stepped into the ring.

Razor ran forward like a bull running after a matador.

Lawson ducked and stepped aside.

Razor stopped and turned, and they faced each other, eye to eye.  Identical build. Hatred oozing from Razor’s face, teeth barred, eyes black. Lawson’s face showed only the slightest sense of amusement.

Chris looked up at Ivan, “That’s him, isn’t it. I mean, his name’s not really Lawson? Right?”

Ivan held up his hand, signaling for Chris to stop talking and watch.

Razor swung a great big right hook that flowed cleanly through open air as Lawson leaned backward.

“My mind raced, and I thought, what could I do?”


Razor followed his swing with running tackle, arms spread wide, aimed low at Lawson’s knees.

Lawson dove forward over Razor, landed and rolled back to a standing position.

Razor jumped up from his knees and spun to face Lawson.

“And I knew, there was no help, no help from you!”


The two warriors circled each other for what seemed like an eternity.  Then Razor seemed to lose all control.

Razor’s fists began to swing pointlessly on broad shoulders.


“Sound of the drums.”

Razor’s knees shot up and down, ineffectively trying to damage Lawson’s ribs.

“Beating of my heart.”

Lawson dropped down to the ground and rolled, and Razor’s feet stomped several times on the mat without ever connecting.

“The thunder of guns.”

Lawson jumped back up to his feet, arms curled in to protect his sides and face.

“Tore me apart.”

A growl erupted from Razor’s chest, and he stepped forward with a determined stride.  Hands outstretched, fists clenching in and out, muscles tense, almost as if he thought he could rip Lawson in two by laying hands on him.

The closer Razor got, the more Lawson crouched.  Knees bending, compressing leg muscles, arms tense, body angling sideways.

“You’ve been – ”

Lawson’s body shot upward as it unwound, his fist taking a perfectly vertical course along the front of Razor’s mid-section.  Five thickfingers curled into the shape of a sledge hammer connected with Razor’s chin.


There was a sickening crack as teeth slammed against teeth.  His head jerked backward leading the way as his entire body fell backward and landed with a dull thud.

The clock stopped at 01:54:00

The crowd went berserk with joy.

Lawson stood for a brief moment and looked at the fallen Razor.  Then, seeming satisfied with his work, walked back to his bike. Methodically, he placed his sunglasses on his face and pulled gloves on each hand.

With a rumble, the Harley roared to life again.

Lawson pointed at Boomer. Rubbed his fingers together making the international sign for money.

Pointed directly at Ivan. Then he gave a slight nod to Ivan and  gunned the engine. He accelerated toward the open garage door of the warehouse.

“Went down the highway, broke the limit, we hit the -”.  The song faded into the distance as Lawson disappeared around the corner.

Ivan looked to Chris and with a smile said, “Yes, boy. His name is not Lawson. That was Clovis.”

Mental Disturbance

“Thank you for coming, Ivan.”

Crossing the Veil was always disheartening for Ivan. It churned his stomach. It wasn’t the leap. That was as instantaneous as stepping through a doorway. It was the perspective that rattled him, like looking through a telescope lens through the wrong end.

Across the threshold, everything grew and became a ghost of itself. Tall trees became monstrous, transparent towers. Buildings grew to three times their size and lost their substance. Most unsettling was the people. The people who had been flesh and blood around him became giant hollow specters. They loamed over him and move passed him as if he were an invisible toddler.

If Ivan were honest with himself, a practice he did not enjoy, and therefore did not practice often, being small and unseen by his world was the most unsettling. In Reality he was a mountain. In Midian, he felt like a child. The ghostly mountains of men in Reality stood above him, unaware he could see their specters. He hated being ignored.

“Bashi insulted me,” Ivan grunted. “The Rothman doesn’t like being insulted. I should leave you here to handle your problems on your own. The Rothman owes you nothing.” Ivan could feel his blood burn with energy. He closed his eyes and soaked in the charge of power running through his veins. This was the only bonus of Midian. Here, he was twice as fast, twice as strong, and almost indestructible. Here he was a warrior of epic legend. Here he was close to a god.

Hyoi shot a disapproving eye at Bashi. “Not today, Bashi. For Ignors sake, not today.”

Bashi grinned in reply. The tall, slender, conculos’ crystal eyes beamed with playful mischief. Bashi nodded an apology to his commanding officer, bowed to Rothman, and produced from his grey tunic, two forearm length black rods with metal tips. He spun them in the air and then handed them to Rothman.

Rothman accepted the weapons and concealed them beneath his black robe.

“I tried to ask him to help us nicely,” Bashi said. His voice was high and piercing, an odd and surprising contrast to his powerful frame. “But he said he wasn’t in the mood to play with me today. So I took his toys and ran. I knew he would follow. This one loves his toys more than anything.”

Rothman watched a giant smoke like leaf fall from a transparent tree and land on the ground to his left. The raw energy throbbing in his body tempted him toward rage. He looked to the sky, hoping it would ground him, but the unmoving clouds of Midian hung like grey cotton balls tacked to a white wall. A chill shot up his spine. “I hate this cursed placed. Why have you brought the Rothman across the Veil?”

“I can imagine how disorienting it must be,” Hyoi said. His voice was smooth and soothing, like a mother’s lullaby. Despite the purple crystal of his eyes, he would pass for a pale human. He was tall and lean, like a twenty-something blue jean model who’d spent a long winter hiding indoors from the cold.  “We wouldn’t have asked you here if it wasn’t important,” Hyoi continued apologetically. “What we need you for is, um, delicate? If my commanding officers were to discover it. Well,” Hyoi paused to laugh to himself. “Well, Bashi and I would be banished to live with the Tinker. Please know, we have not brought you across lightly.”

“Explain. What do you shinny-eyed demons need? And what does the Rothman get in return?”

“Our commanding officer will be here within the hour,” Hyoi explained with grave seriousness. “He has assigned Bashi and I to a mission we, um. Well, let’s just say, we do not believe should be allowable.”

“Good God man,” Ivan said with impatient disgust. “Get on with it.’

“Our squad has been assigned to interfere in your realm. They are afraid of one of yours, a potentially powerful Gracanjo. They plan to cross into Reality to assassinate him before his gifts are fully revealed.”

“Sicutinfernum!” Rothman interjected.

There was a distant shout. Hyoi turned toward a small hill. He felt anxiety run from his feet to his fingers. The fear filled his voice and words rushed from his mouth in urgent rambling. “That’s our squad now. We must meet them. If we don’t meet them, they will be suspicious. I’ve already spoken out to much against the action. I can’t miss the jump. That is why Bashi and I need you to intervene. Do you understand? We need you to intervene when the time is right. Before the Gracanjo is executed. You must intercede before he is killed. If they are successful, there will be no stopping them.” Hyoi turned back to Rothman. He looked the large man in the eye. “Our team will cross together. It will be best if you stop us before we jump through the Veil. You will not be capable of contending with us on your side. It must be here. You must catch us here.”

Rothman grunted.

“We’ve set up a trap on the other side to mask our actions here. Do you understand? We will distract the Gracanjo on your side and then, execute him. You must put a stop to this. If we succeed today, there will be no end to it in the future. They will hunt every potential. Once a precedent is broken, it need not be restored. They will hunt every one. This is why you must attack before the jump. Before we jump. Instill fear. Teach us that we are not to meddle. Create a new precedent. The precedent of the Rothman, as is the precedent of Clovis. You will be legend. Your name will be in our nightmares. The Rothman who knows when we break precedent. The Rothman who will come. But you must attack on this side. If you come too late, every potential Gracanjo will be hunted and ambushed. Do you understand?”

Rothman grunted in affirmation. “Mighty big of you to break rank for a Gracanjo. Not like you Hyoi.”

Hyoi hung his head. “This is not something I do lightly, Ivan. Know that I break rank with deep despair.  But precedent must be maintained. The way of things must be protected. If not, then are we any better than the Tinker?”

The distant shout repeated. Hyoi sighed. “We must go now. When the fighting begins, we will not claim you. We will not assist you. We will stand with our team. This is why, Ivan, you must attack before we jump. Remember, before we jump or all is lost. Precedent will be broken and never restored.”


Sharn looked over his command. The twelve warriors stood in loosely gathered clumps by race. They fidgeted quietly, restless with anticipation.

Sharn was muscular for a conculos. The muscles of his arms and legs were pushed against his grey skin. Like most of his race, his face was sharp and symmetrical. He was a perfectly chiseled rock, with no visible body fat. Except for the long scar across his cheek (a gash left by the horn of a rather nasty Egrat during the fourth raid on the Tinker’s fortification that would not leave him even in rebirth), he was perfectly crafted. With his hands grasped tightly behind his back, he surveyed his men with his crystal eyes. “The evidence planted in Reality,” he said with harsh command. “Has it been removed?”

“Yes sir,” replied a slink named Esh. His tail flicked back and forth with nervous energy.

“This is a critical moment,” Sharn said. “We’ve bled together. We’ve died together. But nothing we’ve done before is more important than what we are about to do now.”

As was their routine, the squad replied with a sharp ‘Huh!”

“We put down Azo’s forces at the battle of Vermanth.”


“We were there at the battles of Rome, and Antigua, and Miami.”


“We stormed the Tinker’s gates and reformed together in the Cavositas of Nativitate.”


“But now we do something that is yet to be done. Now we shape the course of our world. Now, we take things into our own hands. Now, we start a new day. Today, men. Today is the day that we write the history. They will add our names to the Book of Malacandra for what we do today. Because today, today we stomp out a threat before it arises. Today we prevent tragedy. Today, we strike first. Today we end the threat before it begins. Today is our day, gentlemen. Today, is our day.”

The squad replied with a celebratory cheer.

“We must cross today, gentlemen. Do not take it lightly. We will jump the Veil and return. No one lingers. More than a moment or two and you will burn out, your soul returned to home. Andregrunt,” Sharn said, pointing to the first creature in line. “You crossed at Miami. How long were you over?”

Andregrunt, a strong Mardock, head and shoulders above most other, licked his sharp teeth at the memory. “I was there for no more than a ten breaths, Sir,” he barked. “I passed out on breath ten and was pulled back through.”

“Zachariat?” Sharn pointed at the second man in line, another Mardock with giant shoulders that consumed his neck.

“I crossed in Rome,” he replied. His voice was scratchy and soft. “I was there until the Gra-, until we were forced back. Several hours in Reality, Sir. Several hours.”

A second slink, new to Sharn’s command, unwisely offered his thoughts without prompting, “I crossed in Rome too, Sir. Under the command of Genteria? I was not in combat though. We watched the perimeter. We jumped over in five minute rotations.”

Sharm moved silently to stand in front of the new recruit. “Did I ask you to recount you endeavors?”

The slink looked to his feet, shaking in silent with fear.

“Oh. Now when I address you, you decide not to speak.” Fluidly, Sharn slid his right foot and thrust his right fist into the slink. He struck the creature in its pointed nose, causing the slink’s black blood to flow from his snout. The new recruit crumpled to the ground. Sharn applied his foot to the soldier’s neck. “When I want to know your thoughts, I will ask for your thoughts. Until then, you have no thoughts. Until I ask you to say something, you only have ‘Yes, Sir.’ Is that clear?”

The veterans sneered with amusement. The two other new recruits shook with fear. “Yes, sir,” all eleven chimed in unison.

Sharn looked down at the bleeding slink, “Stay down there for the remainder of the battle or I will expedite your next rebirth. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” the slink replied, embarrassed and defeated.

Sharn looked to the end of the line where two other conculous stood. “Hyoi, you requested this mission. Have you jumped before?”

“Yes, sir,” Hyoi snapped, looking forward. “I was in Miami with a different unit, sir. I’ve also jumped often during my time in the Selinda, sir.”

Sharn walked slowly down the line until he was standing directly in front of Hyoi. He looked the conculous up and down, measuring his worth. Hyoi looked forward, unflinching. “I’ve heard the exploits of you Selinda. Sneaking around, whispering to one another. There will be no secret sharing on this mission, do you understand? We need warriors, not story tellers.”

“Yes, sir,” Hyoi said, firmly.

Sharn drew close. Hyoi could taste the commander’s breath. “If you disappointment me,” Sharn whispered with malice. “I’ll break both your legs and leave you on the other side for the humans to dissect. Don’t fail me. I won’t tolerate failure.”

“I won’t fail you, sir,” Bashi said with a smile.

“The sidekick speaks,” Sharn said, tilting his head in curiosity. “I’ve heard you aren’t right in the head? That you follow this one around like a dog?”

Bashi grinned. “Better a dog to a great leader than a lieutenant to a fool, sir. That’s what Andregrunt said last night anyway.”

Sharn’s eyes flared with rage. Channeling his fury, he struck at Bashi’s chest with his right fist To Sharn’s shock, unlike the slink before him, in harmony with Sharn’s hammer, Bashi stepped to the side, avoiding the punch complete. Then as Sharn’s strike recoiled, Bashi swiftly returned to his original stance.

Sharn bore his teeth. “You’re games are not amusing.”

“I am sorry, sir,” Bashi replied, his eyes fixed forward. “They say that I am not right in the head, and thus, must be forgiven for my foolish ways.”

Sharn spun on his heal and called to the group, “I will jump first. Zachariat after me. Then you three. The rest will guard our point of reentry. I will indicated the target. Stay focused on him. Keep interaction with the other humans to a minimum. Is that understood?”

The group again responded with a strong, “Huh!”


“Alright, listen up gents.” Captain Deely commanded the attention of his Marines. “This is your briefing for today’s mission.”

The dimple on his pronounced chin was framed with a defined jaw line, which encased his infectious smile. He had short dirty blonde hair and the confidence that Marines admired. His education at the Virginia Military Institute had paid off. He was well versed in combat tactics and warfare.

The Marines of 2nd Platoon were sitting on metal folding chairs on top of a plywood floor inside a large coyote tan canvas tent, awaiting their mission briefing. It was 0800hours (8am) and bitter cold.

Captain Deely played with a computer remote, smacking it on his hand. “Why does this shit never work the way it’s supposed to?  Can somebody work the computer for me?”

Lance Corporal Jefferson from the intelligence platoon stood up and walked towards the laptop computer that was connected to a projector. “I’ll get it sir.”

“Thank you… Let’s get started. I think we’ve all been here long enough to realize that we aren’t being used for typical recon missions, so here’s what we’ve got today.” Captain Deely pointed the remote control at the computer, pressing the buttons sarcastically as it refused to cooperate. “Next slide, Lance Corporal. …there we are.

“I will be the convoy commander for this mission. Take a note of what vehicle’s you’re assigned to and your role in that vehicle. I will be in vehicle five. We’ll step off at 0900hrs. Lance Corporal, next. …thank you.

“This map shows the route we will take; down MSR Michigan, into town, where our objective will be to search this warehouse for weapon caches. Large ones.” He used the red laser pointer on the remote to circle around a structure on the map. “Our goal is to confirm or disprove this warehouse as a weapons storage location. We have intel that says this building is storing the big ones, as of three weeks ago.”

The captain pointed to Second Squad. “You guys are going to use the rooftop of the warehouse to provide a strong, elevated support position while we are inside.”

Pointing at Third Squad. “You gents will secure the entrances and windows on the first floor.”

“First and Fourth Squads will be with me, conducting the search. Vehicle gunners will remain in their turrets to secure the vehicles, machine guns, and radios. Our usual call sign will be ‘Snake Eyes’ and headquarters is still ‘Dark Horse’.” Captain Deely looked around at his Marines. “Are there any questions?”

Sargent Chris Parker stood up. “Sir, is the building that we are searching already secured, or are we clearing it when we get there?”

“Good question sergeant. The building has not been secured. Upon our arrival, Second squad will clear it on the way up to the roof and ensure that it’s safe for the rest of us.”

Corporal Faulk spoke up. “Sir, are we ever gonna get a real god-damn mission? We all put in a lot of effort and training to come to this shit hole and fuck shit up and all we’ve done so far are these bullshit hide and seek missions.”

“Look, I know this is boring shit gentlemen. But we’ve been tasked with it, so we’re gonna get it done. I’m sure at some point we’ll get tasked with something a little more up our alley. Until then, I want all of you to keep your head on a swivel and remember, complacency kills.”

Captain Deely tossed the remote to Lance Corporal Jefferson. “If there aren’t any more questions, let’s mount up and be ready to roll at 0900.”

The Marines filed out of the tent, into the bright sun and walked across the dirt lot to finish preparing their vehicles and equipment for the mission. Smalls picked up his pace to a slight joh to catch up to Chris. “Jose,” Smalls yelled after his friend.

Chris turned to face Smalls, but continued to walk backwards so as not to slow his pace. “Hose B?” Chris chuckled in response.

“You’re a jerk,” Smalls laughed. “That’s what we decided on. We’re naming our boy Jose.”

“Not bad. It’s a classic. Can’t go wrong with a solid, classic like that. I mean, it’s no ‘Chris.’ But it’s alright.”

“Yeah, asshole. Like I’d name a kid after desert trash like you. It was her dad’s name, so it has some sentimental value and stuff.”

The two friends separated and proceeded to their respective trucks. The trucks were lined up in the order of their assignment for the convoy. The six, boxy, four wheel drive, high mobility, multipurpose, giant wheeled monsters, or “Humvees” for short, looked ready for action. The Humvees were stout trucks with high clearance above the ground, but a large amount of interior space. They came primarily in two colors. Standard olive and tan. These were all coyote tan to match the desert environment.

Chris bent low as he walked to see below the massive tires of his vehicle. “So, are you going to stay in the middle of nowhere,” he yelled, “or are you going to raise the kid someplace normal?”

“Normal? Normal like Philly or Baltimore? You mean that kind of normal?” Smalls laughed as he made final equipment checks on his vehicle.

“True,” Chris laughed. “I just mean, a place where they teach things other than growing corn and country music.”

“Well, we’ve been thinking about it. Al has some relatives in Baltimore.”

“See there. That was easy. You didn’t need to give me all that lip. You could have just said, ‘Yes Chris, we are going to raise the kid in your hometown because no other place would be good enough for him.’”

“Yeah, but its Baltimore. Murder capital, unemployment, blue flashing lights on the street corners.”

Chris rolled under his Humvee and walked over to stand in front of Smalls. “Is that really all you know about my town?”

“Look,” Smalls said, not turning away from his equipment. “We need to focus. I don’t feel like having this conversation right now. Talking about my wife and kids doesn’t blend will with driving through shit filled, desert canyons looking for things that don’t exist.”

Chris nodded his head in understanding. They separated again to finish the vehicle preparation. Chris loaded into his Humvee. The engine roared. Standing on his seat to see over the cab, he yelled one more comment to his friend. “Jose. Can’t wait to meet that little guy!”

Smalls nodded his head and screamed back, “Me too, man. Me too.” Then he loaded into his truck.

Each Humvee was occupied by five Marines; a driver, the vehicle commander in the front passenger seat, a passenger on both sides in the rear. In the very center, one man would stand in a turret mounted to the frame of the Humvee. The Humvees were traditional military issue. They lacked armor and only donned either a canvas top or a fiberglass roof. They were incredible off road machines, but the need for additional armor wouldn’t be fully realized for several more years.

Vehicles one, two, five, and six had 240G turret mounted machine guns. They fired fifteen bullets a second, each about the size of standard crayon.

Vehicle three had an M2 fifty caliber turret mounted machine gun. Each of its bullets were the size of a man’s index finger. The gun has the capability to send out ten bullets every second. There are not many walls, vehicles, or structures that this beast would not penetrate.

The fourth vehicle’s turret carried an MK19 grenade launcher. It weighed over 70 lbs. and launched grenades over one half mile, raining down a relentless barrage of explosions.

The fifth and sixth vehicles also carried 240G turret mounted machine guns.

In a standard convoy, the first and last vehicles (in this case, vehicle one and six) included an AT4, a shoulder fired rocket launcher. AT stood for anti-tank, and would only be used in dire circumstances. The AT4 had a sling for carrying purposes that marines used to hang the weapon on the outside of the turret until it was needed.

Captain Deely’s voice crackled over the radio. “Attention on the net. This is Snake Eyes Actual. Begin radio checks, over.”

“Snake Eyes Actual, this is Snake Eyes One. I read you lima charlie, over.” Corporal Barnum responded over the radio.

Corporal Faulk in vehicle two looked at his driver, Lance Corporal Proach. “Shit, Barnum is vic one commander. Nobody can understand his retarded accent on the damn radio!” Keying up his radio, Corporal Faulk replied to the radio check.  “This is Snake Eyes Two, lima charlie, over.” Looking back at his driver, “seriously, does anybody know what the hell he just said?”

Chris keyed up his radio. “Snake Eyes Actual, this is Snake Eyes Three. Lima charlie, over.”

“This is Snake Eyes Four, I read you lima charlie, over.” Smalls replied to the radio check, then announced to the occupants of his vehicle. “I’ve got five bucks that says Faulk curses on the radio at least once at some point today.” The other marines in vehicle four laughed.

Corporal Vandertrip responded. “This is Snake Eyes Six, lima charlie, over.”

“All vics, this is Snake Eyes Actual. That’s a solid copy from all vics. Prepare to go oscar mike, over.” Captain Deely looked at his driver, but asked all of the marines in his vehicle “you guys good to go?”

The marines all gave a unanimous “yes sir!”

“All vics, all vics, this is Snake Eyes Actual, we are oscar mike.”

With the command given, the six Humvees rolled out of the camp and down the dirt road in a single file, kicking up a trail of dust behind them.


Esh ran to Sharn, the slink’s tail dragging the ground, leaving a light trail in the sand in behind him. “Commander,” he reported breathlessly. “It’s time.”

Sharn grinned and looked around. There was nothing but sand, hills, and the massive ghostly clouds of the world the world they were about to enter. Sharn gave careful attention to the massive, foggy structure before him. He’d watched it for days, trying to understand what he would encounter on the other side. It was never what he expected. The commander had grown accustom to the unknown.

“Soldiers, form a circle around me and Zacharias. Mish will open a jump site with the Lamina. Timing will be critical and sensitive. Do your jobs, and we will all feast and laugh together tonight, warm in front of the fires of Malacandra.”

“Huh!” the troops replied with nervous energy.

“Mish, please validate our entry point once more, and place the coin where we need to enter.”


The morning drive through the wasteland passed quickly. Clearing the final hill, they continued through a ravine that ended as the first buildings in a small village. The rough buildings of the village stood between them and the warehouse building.

“Snake Eyes Actual, this is Snake Eyes One, over.”

“This is Snake Eyes Actual, send it, over.”

“Where are all the people? This place is a ghost town, over.”

“Just keep pushing through and stay vigilant, over.”

The pot holes and narrow roads slowed the convoy as they reached the entrance to the village. Brick and mortar structures lined each side of the street. The back of each house almost touched the hills that rose behind them, to create a natural valley that channeled the road toward the warehouse.

Corporal Faulk scanned the area with his eyes, “This place is fuckin creepy.”

“Hey, there’s a guy up there, eleven o’clock.” Lance Corporal Proach said, pointing to the first rooftop on the left side of the road.

The dirty brown, two story building had a flat roof with a small parapet surrounding the frame. One lone figure could be seen moving toward the front corner of the roof.

Corporal Faulk keyed up his radio, “Snake Eyes One, this is Snake Eyes Two, there’s a military aged male on the rooftop to your ten-o’clock. Keep your eyes…”


Rothman squinted toward the ghostly the town. He crouched behind a collection rocks, atop the hill that separated him from the Malacandrian soldiers. He could barely make out the foggy shape of a figure moving along a roof of the first building in Reality. The man picked up a long barrel shape, held it to his shoulder, and jerked backwards as a plume of smoke erupted from the back of the barrel.

“It’s beginning,” he said to himself, as he gripped tightly with each hands the murderous bars, his weapons of choice. He crouched, preparing to pounce.

Sharn shouted. “Prepare yourselves.” His mouth watered in anticipation. He stood directly in front of a small silver disc lying on the ground. The disk cast a shimmer above it that looked like heat waves radiating from sun baked asphalt. He drew long straight sword from a sheath on his back and held it in front of him at the ready.

The disk began to spin, kicking up a small cloud of dust around it.

“Hold! Hold!” Sharn commanded.

It spun faster and faster. The air was pierced by a blinding light shooting in a beam from the disc.

Through the shimmering air, there was a blinding burst of light.

“Hold! Hold!” Sharn yelled again.


Corporal Faulk keyed up his radio, “Snake Eyes One, this is Snake Eyes Two, there’s a military aged male on the rooftop to your ten-o’clock. Keep your eyes.” Faulk’s voice stopped mid-sentence. He was rendered silent as his mind fought to comprehend the rapidly changing environment around him.

A large ball of flame is erupting from under vehicle one. It soared into the air doing a backflip. There was an explosion. Pieces of the Humvee shredded off and flew in all directions.

Lance Corporal Johnson shot out of the gun turret like a ball from a canon.

Debris flipped end over end, coming toward the front of Faulk’s vehicle.

“I need to turn away. I need to turn away,” his mind raced.

A shockwave just sent him sideways.

Debris slammed into the front of our vehicle.

“We won’t be able to move. We won’t be able to move,” Faulk’s mind screamed. The world slowed around him. It felt that minutes passed before he could comprehend that his vehicle had also been hit with an explosive and they were under attack.

Men seemed to have appeared from nowhere on all sides of the convoy. Some fired the standard wooden stocked, machine gun of the terrorists. Their AK47 let out a steady “thump thump thump” as shells leaving the gun smacked against the sides of the vehicles they were tearing to ribbons. Others men stood erect with the long tube shaped RPGs. These took careful aim before pulling their triggers. Trails of smoke burst from behind the tubes as the explosive tips rocketed toward the Humvees.

The air filled with violent sounds of destruction, the snapping of bullets, and the whiz of projectiles in the air. Explosions filled the small village. Screams from injured men sent chills down the spines of the living.


Rothman breathed in sharply at the wavy images of war and death below.  The wispy trail of the projectile sent from the tube hit the ground under the first metal wheeled carriage, an explosion sending it skyward. “Unnecessary violence. Killing without purpose. Is this all the efforts of Sharn?” he mumbled to himself.

A beam of life shot through the sky and Rothman knew it was time.


Regaining his composure, Corporal Faulk continued with his radio transmission, “…all vics, all vics, Snake Eyes One is down. Shit! Repeat. Snake Eyes One is down and blocking the roadway. We are taking RPG and small arms fire. It’s a fucking ambush, over! A fucking ambush!”

“This is Snake Eyes Actual. All vics, back up and…” Captain Deely was interrupted as an invisible wave of sound rattled his teeth.

Lance Corporal Krinler shouted down to Captain Deely from the machine gun turret, in between bursts of his 240G, “vehicle six is down, sir! We’re blocked in!”

“Fuck!” Captain Deely screamed. He knew the kill zone had been set. He needed to get out. They needed to escape the blockade or they’d all be dead. He looked left and right, searching for a hole in the chaos, a place to exit the trap. Then he saw it, a home, the second building on the left. It appeared sturdy. He snatched the radio and transmitted, “All vics dismount! I say again, dismount and regroup in the brown building at the convoy’s nine-o’clock!”

Lance Corporal Krinler dropped from the turret onto the floor of the Humvee. “Krinler, let’s g…” Captain Deely stopped shouting when he saw the bullet hole just below Krinler’s left eye. “Move out!” Deely continued shouting as he jumped out of the Humvee and began running towards the brown building.

He was fifteen feet from the entrance when his body shook in a spasm and he collapsed to the ground in confusion. “Why’d I stop? Why won’t my legs move?” his mind raced.

The marines from vehicle three had dismounted and began making their way towards the brown building. They crouched low, scuttling between points of cover. Chris watched Captain Deely run to the door. A pink mist puffed out of his lower abdomen and he collapsed to the ground. Chris’ view was interrupted as Smalls jumped out of his vehicle and ran to the captain, bent down to a knee and used his brute strength to left the Captain from the ground.

The other four marines from Smalls vehicle stacked up at the front door of the brown building, preparing to make entry. The first marine drew back his knee and thrust it forward, shattering the door.

A ball of fire erupted, consuming the pieces of his body as they flew into the street. The three other marines were hit with enough force that their lives ended before they could register that they were in danger.

Chris crouched behind his Humvee and scanned the buildings for movement. An Iraqi man on the roof of the building behind Smalls was taking aim. Probably the same man that had shot Deely. The gun steadied in a direct line with Smalls back.

“Smalls, behind you!” Chris screamed.

Smalls was weighed down by Captain Deely and could not maneuver to free up his rifle. Chris saw the man on the roof take aim. Chris moved, leaving cover, running toward the building, screaming. Chris took aim and fired at the building, but he had no angle. His bullets pelted the wall meaninglessly.

The moment would live in Chris’ mind forever: Smalls’ body jerking uncontrollably as bullets tore through him, the expression of recognition and terror on his face, the red mist bursting from his body.

Chris screamed in agony. His eyes burned with tears. He reached helplessly for his friend as he ran.

Smalls fell to his knees. The bullets continued to riddle him. The massive man fell backward on top of the Captain. Then it was still. The bullets turned toward another victim. Smalls lay in the blood soaked dirt, peaceful and unmoving despite the horrors still going on around him.

Chris pressed his back against the building. He looked at his fallen friend. Tears mixed with sweat burned his eyes. He felt a sudden need to be present. He needed to break from the pain. He needed to gain control of the chaos around him. He took a deep breath, pushed his sorrow down, and calmed his nerves. A cold rage filled his heart. He gripped his weapon and assessed the scene. His senses came alive as they never had before. He dropped to one knee, raised his riffle to his shoulder, exhaled slowly, placed his finger on the trigger, and whispered to himself a single word, “Smalls.”


Sharn stood still, focused on the actions in the large ghostly town around him. More specifically, he watched one man in the town.

The shimmering air that normally indicated the existence of the veil had completely disappeared around one individual. Sharn moved closer to look through the foggy wall, through the house, until he was even with the smoky front wall. He watched Chris intently. Sharn saw the human drop to a knee, the human’s shoulders even with Sharn’s eyes. The commander ran his hand through the side of the man he intended to kill, his hand pushing through the fog but touching nothing. “This is him. This is the one. Everyone take a good look. He is the one who must not live.”

“Huh!” replied the circle of men.

Sharn moved back to the coin. He crouched, preparing to leap into the light. “On my mark we prepare to jump. Steady men. Steady.”

And then, with a guttural roar, and the whiz of steal weapons piercing the air, the clarity that surrounded the Malacandrians dissipated.


Captain Deely watched in awe at the rapid movement of his sergeant. Chris was targeting, firing, and then targeting again before the previous victim had hit the ground. In seconds, the soldier cleared ten combatants without hesitation.

Deely’s legs throbbed. The shock was passing and his body was experiencing the pain of his injuries for the first time. He breathed deeply, sucking back the agony. Bracing his shoulders against the ground, he pushed up hard. The body of Sergeant Smalls rolled from on top of him. To his shock, Sergeant Parker was already there. In a solid motion, Chris swept down, threw Deely over his shoulder, and backed toward the house, all while continuing to drop terrorists. Deely had never seen anything like it. The Sergeant’s speed and power were inhuman.

Chris backed the two of them toward the door of the house. In the seven steps it took to get to the safety of the shattered door, Deely thought he heard Chris drop eight more enemies.

Pausing at the door of the building, Chris barked orders to the four marines from vehicle three, “Clear this building!”

The four marines snapped into action. They entered the building with riffles raised. The sound of gunfire echoed out of the doorway.

Seconds later a voice came from the roof top, “Sergeant, the building is clear!” Deely looked up to see the marine’s torso spin as bullets from separate angles pierced his body, launching his body off the roof.

Chris didn’t pause at the site of the man. He stepped into the building and propped Captain Deely in a corner. The Sergeant retrieved his side arm and handed it to the Captain.

Deely was still in shock at the efficiency of his soldier. He breathed and took in the room. The feeling of safety was quickly washed away by the feeling of sorrow, as Deely saw the other three marines from vehicle three lying dead on the steps to the second floor. The safety of the building had been bought with a bloody shootout and more men had been lost.

Deely looked to his legs. Both ankles were twisted in odd directions. A piece of Humvee protruded from the left one.

More Marines entered the room. “Keep it together,” Deely whispered to himself. He swallowed back his pain, fighting to stay conscious. He saw Sergeant Parker in the doorway, again firing one round per target with terrifying precision. “You three,” Deely yelled with all his might to the three who were catching their breath. “Secure the roof. Provide elevated fire.”

“Yes, sir!” the three remaining Lance Corporals from vehicle five acknowledged.

“…and keep a low profile!” Deely warned.

Two more Marines entered the house, provided safety by Sergeant Parker’s cover fire. “Who are we missing? I need a sitrep,” Captain Deely said with a painful groan. “Everyone from vehicle six was KIA.”

A young man stood in front of the Captain. Deely’s vision was fading. He couldn’t make out the man’s face. He couldn’t place it. His mind was blacking out. He forced himself back to the present.

“Vehicle one looked like it was hit pretty hard, sir,” the young soldier reported. “And probably all KIA, but I couldn’t see it very well past vehicle two.”

“Okay, we can’t lose focus,” Captain Deely said. “As far as we know, they were diverted and found a different building for cover.” He retrieved a map and a handheld radio from the pouch on his side, he switched radio channels and began to transmit, “Dark Horse, Dark Horse, this is Snake Eyes, over.”

Sergeant Parker’s firing went silent. The blond haired man stayed on alert, ready to attack again at the sight of a combatant. The room waited for a long eight seconds, then the radio began crackling with a reply, “Snake Eyes, this is Dark Horse. Send it, over.”

The three marines exchanged gunfire on the rooftop and their voices echoed down the stairwell, “Contact from the tan building, nine-o’clock!  …reloading!”

“Dark Horse, we need QRF to our pos for a platoon sized hostile force with small arms and RPG’s, break-, – and casevac for approximately 12 packs. Prepare for coordinates, over.”

“Ready to copy, Snake Eyes. Send it.”

“Our pos is 33.405, 43.917. How copy, over?”

“That’s a solid copy Snake Eyes. QRF has a fifteen mike ETA and casevac will stand by until a non-hostile LZ is established, over.”

“Roger, Snake Eyes out.” Captain Deely looked up at Chris. “We need to make contact with somebody from vehicle two,” the Captain called. “Check for other survivors, and prepare to evacuate the area.” Switching his radio back to their channel, he keyed up the microphone once more, “Snake Eyes Two, this is Snake Eyes Actual, come in, over.”

The radio stayed frustratingly silent. The snap of gunfire continued to echo from building to building. Sergeant Parker fired off more deliberate rounds.

Another marine knelt in front of the Captain. “Sir, we need to get you patched up,” he said as he bent down and began opening the captain’s first aid kit.

Deely could feel himself losing consciousness again. He pushed the marine’s hands away. “No. No,” he said. “Take Sergeant Parker and find the others.”

“Captain, we can’t just leave you,” the marine said.

“That’s an order!” Captain Deely barked.

Chris stopped what he was doing, stood up, and took a few steps back. “Marines, we’re moving out!” he commanded. “No one gets left behind. Let’s go.”

The two marines complied and, following Chris’ lead, low-crawled to the front door.

“We’re gonna go find the rest of our guys and get the hell out of here. Check your ammo and prepare to move out.” Chris instructed.

One of the three Lance Corporals began to speak, “I’m running low on ammo, does -.”

A small thump on the dirt floor interrupted the marine. Before Chris could look down to see what it was, Captain Deely screamed, “Grenade!” Chris wrapped his arms around the two marines, and with all the power he could muster, he picked them up, and with unbelievable speed, launched himself and them up the stairway, knowing he would catch the blast, but they would be saved.


Sharn was on his back. The human had leapt into the center of their circle and put the commander on his but with a powerful kick. Sharn screamed in furry, “Now! Now! Now! The Gracanjo dies now!”

But his troops could not respond. They were caught in a whirl wind of metal and pain, entangled in battle with the large human at the center of the circle. The man brought his steal rod down on the head of a lunging Mardock, crumpling its skull. Before the Mardock hit the ground and liquefied, the human swung low and took the legs from under a slink. As the slink fell to his back, and the warrior monk in all black rammed a steal rod through his forehead.

Sharn screamed in rage as his troops liquefied before him. Another Mardock died as the human jammed the steel rod in his left hand through the Mardock’s chin. The rod burst through the back of the Mardocks head and then slid back and found its way to the slinks jaw.

Sharn rose to one knee. He looked up and mumbled with recognition, “The Rothman? Why is the Rothman here?” Two more of his troops melted into black sludge, their spirts returning to be reborn. Half his force gone in the blink of an eye.

Sharn watched Zachariat ran forward, but Rothman didn’t move his feet. His right hand swept forward. With a shimmer of black steal, Zacharias’ head snapped sideways, his body following in a twirl, his eyes closing in immediate ending to his existence in Midian.

Sharn pressed himself up off the ground. “Rothman!” he screamed. “Face me!”

Rothman locked eyes with Sharn and smiled. The thick, black life of the fallen was splattered across his face. His dark eyes were wide and wild. “It will be like it was in Pompeii, Anzac Cove, and Berlin. I have sent you to rebirth many times, Sharn, and I shall do it again today, and one day you might learn to run when the Rothman arrives.”

Sharn hesitated for one second, “That was you?”


Sharn drew his long sword, gripping the hilt with both hands. “It is a shame you humans only live once. I would enjoy killing you over and over. Today is your final day! Leave now and I will permit you to live.”

Rothman laughed. “I never grow tired of your bravado. Good. Good for you. Let us finish this.” He spun his rods in his hands, and with a shake of his arms, double edged blades extended from each of the smooth black rods.

The remaining four soldiers stepped back to give the warriors room.

Sharn lunged forward, swiping down with his blade. Rothman dodged to the left, spun his body, and stopped to face Sharn head on. He pushed forward with his left and right legs, jumping forward toward Sharn. Sharn jumped backwards into a roll and landed outside the circle of men surrounding Rothman.


Both Bashi and Hyoi saw Rothman’s assault on Sharn, but they were not focused on battle in Midian. Instead they watched the large, foggy figures in reality. They saw a breaded man approach the door. The man pulled a round object from his jacket. They both recognized the smoky grenade as itbounced across the floor.

Bashi knew he had to act quickly. He took two strides and leaped feet first into the beam of light extending from the coin. The sound of Hyoi screaming, “No!” faded behind him.

Hyoi and Andregrunt, the giant Mardock, made eye contact. They raced to the light together, both hoping to stop the other from crossing the Veil. Hyoi moved as quickly as he could, but Andregrunt’s long strides won out. The Mardock leaped into the light behind Bashi. Hyoi pulled up short of the light, unsure where he would be most useful, deciding to wait and see what transpired.


The grenade should have exploded. It should have torn Sergeant Parker and Captain Deely to shreds. It should have destroyed everything in the room, but instead of the deafening blast, the air was sucked from the room with a deep inhaling sound.

Deely watched in horror as a grey circle of light appeared in the middle of the room. From the circle came a beautiful, pale man with purple eyes. He was like a person, but seemed more than a person. Later, in interviews that would result in Captain Deely being declared unfit for duty, Deely would describe the figure as a beautiful angel who’d descended from Heaven to save them from the grenade.

The purple eyed man grabbed the grenade and tossed it, underhand, through the grey, shinning circle in the ceiling. He then turned to Sergeant Parker and smiled.

He paused to smile. Why did he pause to smile? At Sergeant Parker? The question would haunt Deely for the rest of his life. A small mystery that relentlessly bore itself into his brain. Maybe, if the angel hadn’t of paused to smile, he would have seen the monster behind him. Maybe.

Behind the angel came a demon. A massive, muscular, sharp toothed, man like, demon with grey, colorless skin, and black swirling pools for eyes. Deely watched in terror as the demon grabbed the angel from behind by the head, and, with one hand, flung the beautiful purple eyed creature back through the glowing circle of light in the ceiling.

Deely screamed in horror. He watched, helpless, as the giant beast took two long steps toward the stairs, grabbed Sergeant Parker under the arms as if the Sergeant were a small child, and moved back toward the circle of light in the ceiling. Deely scrambled for the firearm Sergeant Parker had given him. He raised it toward the monster, his hand shaking with fear. He pulled back on the trigger. Shot after shot after shot rang out, but he was to unsteady. His bullets went wide, breaking holes through the wall around the beast.

The monster crouched and then jumped toward the light, with Sergeant Parker still under his arm.


Chris waited on the stairs, every muscle tense, shielding his men. He waited for the blast of the grenade, for the explosion to shatter his ears and pierce his flesh, but the blast didn’t come. In its place, Chris found himself floating backwards. He watched the captain fire his pistol from his seated position in the corner. He saw the looks of utter horror on his men’s faces. He saw the powerful, rippled, muscular arm around his chest. He felt warm, acid breath on the back of his neck.

He squirmed and fought to escape, but it was useless. He couldn’t break his captors grasp. He strained to turn and look his captor in the face. What he saw sent him limp with fear. Two rows of jagged, sharp, white teeth in the mouth of a man. A dark, black, unending pit of swirling tar when the creature’s eye should have been. A horrible, proud, smile of victory.

Then he was moving up. Up with rapid speed, toward the ceiling. But where the ceiling should have been was ground. Chris emerged from a hole in the dirt. Like an elevator traveling up with open doors, he saw the threshold of dirt pass before his eyes. Strange bodies lay all around. A pair of black boots and powerful, tan legs were in front of him.

Everything looked strange. More than the black robed warrior. The sunlight cast a strange glow that illuminated the rocks, the dirt, and everything else. Clouds stirred in violent sweeping spirals directly above him.

He counted the bodies that fell at the mad warrior’s feet. Six, eight, ten. Ten men lying still, two struggling to stand up, and one with a vice grip around his body. The carnage was incredible, the smell of explosives hung in the air.

The creature that was holding Chris was now crawling, dragging the rest of Chris’ body through the portal. Chris thrashed, frantic to be released. Panic filled his chest and vomit filled his mouth. He fought and kicked.

Then there was a voice and strange words. The dark monk spoke in a deep, distinct voice, directly to the beast that was trying to drag him through the portal, “Quos ego faciamhinc.”


Hyoi watched the grenade transform from mist to solid material as it passed through the Veil portal.

Rothman pivoted on his right foot to move out of the path of a powerful downward thrust from Sharn.  The grenade rolled between the two warriors. Neither noticed the small black ball.

Knowing there couldn’t be more than a second left before the ball exploded, Hyoi sprung into action. In one fluid motion, Hyoi grabbed Rothman by shoulders and yanked the giant man back, and he kicked the grenade in the air toward Sharn.

Reflexively, the commander caught and cradled the strange object against his chest in celebration. “I now have a relic from Reali-.” His sentence was cut short by the massive blast. Heat and shock knocked Hyoi backward, but he managed to land in a crouch.

Hyoi had only regained his footing for a moment when Bashi flew through the portal in the ground, and collided into his friend.

Rothman burst into heavy, think laughter at the two conculus entangled on the ground, but the warrior’s laughter was cut short by the sight of Andregrunt’s vicious, pale face grinning, dragging the Gracanjo through the portal in the ground. With snapping reflexes, Rothman caught the Mardock by the neck before the beast’s body emerged into Midian.

Squeezing tight on Andregrunt’s neck, Rothman leaned close to the Mardock’s ear. The stench of death and suffering on the monster’s breath made Rothman want to vomit. Rothman whispered to his prey, “Quos ego faciamhinc” as he choked the life from the beast.


The monster’s grip loosened after he heard the monk speak to the beast. Chris began to fall. The strange land rose quickly out of view. He passed through the ceiling and landed on his butt in the middle of the room. Above him came a rush of air as a circle of light spiraled to a close. Chris looked around the room. He saw Captain Deely fighting to remain conscious in the corner. The two remaining Marines on the stairs, raced toward the door and fell just as quickly to enemy fire.

Deely held the pistol with a white knuckled grip and sent rounds through the doorway of the house as militants attempted to run through the entrance.

Crumbled bodies were piling up at the entrance of the room, then Chris heard the bleak click of an empty ammunition magazine as the Captain continued to pull the trigger without result.

This is it, Chris thought to himself. This is where we die. He rose to his feet, preparing to face what ever came through the door.

A brief glance into the street showed another group of men running towards the building. Chris glance back at his Captain in the corner. Chris’ vision blurred with grief as he saw Captain Deely’s hand drop his weapon into the crimson pool of blood in the dirt growing larger as he helplessly bled out from his wound.


Hyoi stood still, looking down at Bashi. “Did any escape?”

“No, sir,” Bashi replied, still laying in the dirt.

“Where’s the Lamina?”

“Rothman took it. He is gone.” Bashi pointed toward the rocks. “He went that way.”

Hyoi brushed the dirt off his clothes. “Let him have it,” he said. “He needs to get home somehow.”

“Hyoi, look at this,” Bashi said, his finger pointed at the giant, smokey figure of Chris.


Sorrow and frustration slowly transformed into determination. Chris inhaled a long breath. Calmness passed over him in a warm wave. Time slowed. Every movement seemed to hang in the air. Motes of dust slowly drifted through the open window. Enemy soldiers took slow steps across the threshold.

Chris crouched and launched toward the intruders with his arms thrust forward. He became a blur of motion. His fists collided with the insurgents chests. They flew backward with the same force of the initial explosion that had opened the doorway. Their lives ended before they hit the street behind them.


As Chris landed on his feet outside the doorway, Captain Deely’s eyes opened enough for him to watch Chris move away into a mirage like shifting wave of motion.

Deely pressed a hand to his side and pulled it away covered in blood. He saw the men piled upon men in the doorway. He used his good arm to pull himself up to the window sill, and he scanned the town for signs of Chris.

Across the street, where the shots had originated that had ripped his men apart, he found Sergeant Parker.


An arm sweep across the neck of the sniper and broke the vertebrae. Instead of releasing his arm from the neck, he used his momentum to turn his body into a horizontal scythe. His boot made contact with the second sniper on the roof, the man’s body collapsed in a heap.

Chris landed, planting his feet on the roof top, never releasing the insurgent’s neck. He located four insurgents creeping down the street to search the empty Humvees. With his feet anchored, he snapped the dead body over his head, releasing it at the apex, sending it flying down the street. He ran forward and jumped from the rooftop, toward the Humvees. Overhead, the limp body still drifted in a lazy arc toward the vehicles. Chris ran at the group, his legs pumping furiously. He was in the center of the gang before the were aware of his approach.  The moment of recognition barely had a chance to register on their faces before their fate was sealed.


Deely drew his knees under him to support his weight as he watched through the open window.

Chris stopped moving in the center of the soldiers just in time to catch the falling body by the feet. Using the momentum of the corpse, Chris caught the body by the feet and spun in a circle. The four attackers were bashed with the corp’s head. The men went flying in four directions. Two bodies slammed against the burning hulk of a Humvee. Another became airborne, soaring in a flopping tangle and landing in a barren tree, branches piercing the body in five places. The fourth body slammed into the smoldering doorway, tearing in half, the waist and legs to stop at the captain’s feet.

With precision and efficiency, Deely watched the blur of Sergeant Parker continue to from house to house, leaving bodies in a trail of gore and death behind him, until finally, there was no movement in the village.


Chris stood alone next to the line of abandon Humvees searching for survivors. His racing heart pounded with pain in his chest. His arms and legs cried in pain. The world was still around him. He closed his burning eyes tight, held them for a moment, and then opened them again. He looked down at his hands. They were soaked in the blood of countless combatants. The horrors he’d committed over the past five minutes were a haze in his foggy mind. He felt as through the world had grown centuries older.

He walked back toward Smalls. He looked down at his friend. His eyes stung and filled with tears. He sat in the dust, collapsing to the ground like an exhausted child.  He wrapped his arms around his friend’s motionless body and cradled Small’s head to his chest. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He wept softly and freely. Exhaustion and grief began to overtake him. The flow of tears grew heavy and uncontrolled. His chest heaved with spasms as he tried to catch a breath. Moans began to escape his lips. They rolled from him in waves of pain.

He began to fade. His lids grew heavy. As he drifted into the sleep from over exertion, he caught a glimpse of two dusty small men watching him to his left. They were knee high ghosts. He recognized them. He stared for a moment, trying to comprehend, but his exhaustion overtook him


Hyoi and Bashi watched in frozen awe as Chris wept.

“I still don’t understand the depth of loss that they experience,” Bashi said.

“In Reality, life without rebirth. Life with an end, a terminal point. It does add passion to living.”

“Where do we go with this next?”

“I’m not sure. Others will wonder what happened here. Who knows how much Sharn and his crew will retain when they return.”

“Hopefully very little.”

“Either way, we will have to give account to Mikael.”


The sounds of marines filtered into the room from outside. “Vehicle clear! The area is all clear!”

A young marine approached the entrance to the brown building and saw Sergeant Parker collapsed, paths of tear smudged dirt drying on his face. Smalls’ body limp beside him. He quickly turned around and shouted “I found one! I found a survivor!”

Seconds later, a group of marines approached Chris and began shaking him, trying to ask questions to no avail.

“Are you injured?”

“Is there anybody else?”

“Where is the rest of your team?”

“Can you walk?”

The questions kept flowing and Chris couldn’t answer.

From inside the bullet riddled house, Captain Deely was attempting to answer, but everything he responded with seemed ridiculous. “There was an angel with purple eyes! Then a demon with pointy teeth! The demon took Sergeant Parker through a hole in the ceiling, but only half way. And then Sergeant Parker flung a body from a roof and used it as a weapon!”

Eventually, still shrouded in silence, Chris stood up and stumbled to follow the marines back to their Humvee for evacuation.

Before they departed the small town, Chris had a glimmer of hope and shouted to the vehicle commander. “Did you guys find corporal Faulk and his fire-team? Are they okay?”

Deely shook his head. A brief silence filled the inside of the Humvee and only the diesel engine was heard.

The vehicle commander responded with a somber tone. “Yeah, we found them.” After another brief pause he continued. “It wasn’t good.”

Chris’ slipped back into silence.

The ride back to base seemed to last an eternity and Chris remembered the horrific incident over and over in his head. He wondered what had happened towards the end. Why was I pulled away?  If I didn’t get pulled away, would it have mattered? Who pulled me away? Why did I get to live? I wish the grenade had taken me from this sorrow. He was tormented by his own questions and doubts.

After arriving at the base, Captain Deely and Seargant Parker went through the debriefing at the headquarters building. They attempted to answer all of the questions that were asked. From majors to generals, they all believed the story of the ambush. They had to listen without comment when hearing about Deely’s demon and Chris’ “out of body experience.” They chalked that up to post traumatic stress, until-.


Captain Deely lay in the hospital bed as men pummeled him with questions.

He answered them all with precise accuracy. The soldiers asking questions often would exchange glances, usually at the most unbelievable parts.

Deely held up his hand. “Stop. I’ve have had enough of this. Have you talked to Chris?”

“Yes,” one officer answered.

“And I am going to guess that our stories matched up, perfectly.” He paused. “No, you don’t even have to tell me, I know that answer, because I know what I saw, and I know Chris.

“So here is what you are going to do. You are going to confirm each casualty on that battle field, and you will verify that the enemies’ dead were in fact killed in action, exactly the way I have described. Only someone moving at the speed of a blur could have cause the carnage that you will find.

“Then, and only then, will I answer any more of your questions.”


When the debriefing was finished Chris walked back to the barracks, where he approached the door to his room. He slowly opened the door, proceeded to his bottom bunk and sat down.

His eyes wondered around the room and things started to sink in, one observation at a time. He looked at the other three empty beds. Faulk, Barnum, and Smalls were gone and they would never lay in these beds again.

Scanning the room with his eyes, he looked at each marine’s personal space. They had been adorned with pictures of loved ones and items sent with love in the mail.

Faulk had a pair of pink fuzzy handcuffs on his desk that his girlfriend had sent him. Barnum had several stuffed animals on his bed from his wife. Smalls had a picture of Alessandra and a sonogram photo on the wall by his bed.

“Jose” Chris said quietly and the uncontrollable weeping continued.

A Smalls Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, 1999 – Algona, IA

“Thank goodness we’re here. I don’t know if I could deal with eating my own knees any longer.” Smalls exclaimed as he struggled to climb out of the car. “Who’s idea was it to rent a Yaris for a two hour drive, anyways?”

Chris held back a laugh. “Hey, I was only trying to save us some money and apparently Des Moines International Airport doesn’t have a huge selection of economy cars. But it got us here, didn’t it?”

“Yeah, but it’s gonna be a week before I can stretch out of the fetal position.”

“I don’t wanna hear it. Let’s get inside. It’s cold and I’ve been looking forward to mom’s amazing green bean casserole for months.” Chris loved being around Smalls’ clan. They treated him like a member of the family.

The Smalls’ house was a charming two story colonial with a white wrap-around deck. Its wooden siding had been well maintained throughout the years and had a fresh coat of white paint. The dark trim around the deck framed the front door beautifully communicating authentic hospitality would be found within. The house sat on almost eighteen acres, most of which was covered with rows upon rows of corn.

They hadn’t even had a chance to knock on the door, when it swung open and Alessandra exploded into Smalls’ arms, kissing him.

“Alright, I’m gonna give you two a minute. I’ll be inside when you’re done,” Chris said with a smile, as he walked past them into the house.

Alessandra whispered into Smalls’ ear. “Are we still good?”

“Yes. How much longer? I need to get it off my chest.” he replied as he squeezed her in his arms.

“Soon. Come on, it’s chilly out here.”

“Ugh.” Smalls released his bride and held her hand as they walked into the house.

This was the second time Chris had spent Thanksgiving with the Smalls family. He enjoyed watching the women hustle around preparing the food, while the men sat around salivating over the smell and catching up on life. The antique wooden table in the dining room was filling up with traditional Thanksgiving food; turkey, ham, cranberry sauce, rolls, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, and Chris’ favorite, Sarah’s green bean casserole.

The pies and desserts wouldn’t bless the table with their presence until after everybody had gorged themselves with the main meal. It’s usually several hours after the main meal and consists of pumpkin pie, apple pie, ice cream, cherry cobbler, and chocolate pecan pie.

Every item consumed on Thanksgiving was home cooked and prepared in the Smalls’ kitchen. Sarah had a gift for country cooking. When Alessandra joined the family, she added some Brazilian spice to the traditional meal, making Salgadinhos for a main course and Pavé for dessert.

“Do you guys need help with anything?” Chris asked as he walked into the kitchen.

Sarah waived both of her hands dismissively. “No, sweetie. Relax and enjoy yourself.”

Alessandra walked to Chris with both hands held up, until they lightly collided with his chest. She continued pushing, forcing him to retreat. “Go spend time with the guys. Relax.”

“Okay, okay. If you insist.” Chris held both of his hands up, just above his shoulders, complying with the demands and walking backwards out of the kitchen.

In the living room, Chris made himself comfortable on the couch, at the opposite end from Smalls. Henry was sitting on his old, worn recliner, with his feet propped up. The fireplace was crackling and giving off a warm wave of comfort, while the television displayed the college football game quietly. “Aahh, come on! He never stepped out of bounds!”  Henry proclaimed his dissatisfaction for the recent play.

A commercial came on the television and Henry twisted his head towards the couch where his son and Chris were sitting. “You boys deploying anytime soon?” He said with a casual tone. His face betrayed his underlying emotion.

Smalls quickly responded before Chris had a chance. “There’s a possibility, but nothing set in stone. Why do you ask?”

“Ah, you know. I see things on the news. All this stuff in Iraq…  …and now it’s starting in Afghanistan. I may be old, but I’m not stupid. Some of our country’s boys are already headed over there, and with you two bein’, you know,” then in a whisper, “recon, I figure it’s only a matter of time.”

Chris looked at Smalls with a half tilted head, and the corners of his mouth pulled back.

“Yeah, I’m sure it’s probably coming, dad. But we don’t know anything definite.”

“Alright, I was just curious.”

Sarah walked into the living room, leaned over the back of Henry’s recliner and kissed the top of his head. “The food is on the table boys.”

The sturdy hardwood floors creaked under the weight of everybody walking as they all shuffled from the living room to the dining room, where the table was covered from edge to edge with large plates and bowls of food. At once, the whole family dragged out the antique wooden chairs surrounding the old table and shuffled to find space.

There was barely enough room as everyone sat shoulder to shoulder, and Chris relished every bit of it. He was sure his family had enjoyed similar holidays in Florida, but they were buried in memories that he couldn’t pull to the surface.

After a moment of silence, the room erupted in a chorus of praise to Sarah for her cooking accomplishments. Chris marveled at the coordination that it must require to have all of the food prepared and finished at the same time, steaming hot and filling the air with the most wonderful smells.

Sarah thanked everyone and directed attention to Henry at the other end of the table. “None of this would be possible without your father’s hard work. It hasn’t always been easy, but he has always provided this family with everything we ever needed.” Her eyes began to fill with tears of joy.  She quickly grabbed a napkin and wiped them. “Honey, would you mind saying a prayer?”

“You bet, momma.” Henry reached his hands out to the sides, grabbing Alessandra’s right hand with his left hand and Chris’ left hand with his right.

Everybody followed in suit, holding each other’s hands in a circle around the table as Henry’s deep voice began blessing the family and food with prayer. “…and in Jesus’ name I pray, amen,” he ended and the feast began.

After everyone had eaten more than their stomachs could hold, conversation continued for an hour. Everyone shared the role of beginning a story, and then each person in turn would make corrections as they remember the stories differently. Laughter erupted spontaneously as Sarah described stories of her “little” boy Smalls. Chris smiled, trying to picture his best friend as a little vulnerable boy.

There came a pause in the stories, and Chris spoke up. “Um. I need you all to know. Well, you probably already do, but, you are my family. I can’t quite describe how it feels to be included.

“When I first met our boy Smalls here, he was a grumpy, proud oaf of a man,” he paused while everyone shared knowing smiles, “But through my hard work and persistence, he is now a presentable member of society.” Everyone smiled but waited. They knew that Chris hadn’t finished. “And beyond just a friendship, he is my brother.”

After a few more stories, festivities began to wind down with everyone at the table breathing deep sighs of contentment, and Alessandra interrupted the silence by tapping the side of her glass cup with a spoon, calling for everybody’s attention. “So, there is something that we would like to tell all of you,” she said looking to Smalls. A grin of anticipation dominated his face.

“What’s going on?” Henry inquired.

Alessandra placed both of her hands on her belly. “You’re going to be grandparents.”

Sarah gasped. “You’re kidding me!  That’s wonderful news!  When are you due?”

“June fourteenth.” Alessandra couldn’t stop smiling. “We’ll find out if it’s a boy or girl in a few weeks.”

“Congratulations, son. Congratulations to both of you.” Henry said proudly.

Chris leapt to his feet and raced around the table to embrace Smalls, “Congrats brother,” he said. Then he gave Alessandra a huge hug.  “This is awesome guys. I’m gonna be an uncle!”

After dinner and desserts, the activities slowed and everybody found a cozy place to sit and socialize in the family room. The smell of freshly brewed coffee filled the air as they all held their warm mugs and took small sips. Sarah and Alessandra had hijacked the conversation and began going back and forth, bouncing baby name ideas off of each other.

Chris’ cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out to check the incoming number. His smile faded a bit, but was quickly replaced again. No one noticed, except Smalls. Smalls saw and knew. “Excuse me,” Chris said stepping from the room. “I need to take this call.” The smile was replaced by a foreboding look of gloom as he accepted the call and walked out of the room. “Hi Staff Sergeant, what’s up…” His voice faded as he turned the corner into the kitchen.

Smalls counted to thirty before moving to join Chris, creating distance between their departures to avoid drawing attention. He walked into the kitchen to see what was going on. As he rounded the corner, he could hear Chris talking again. They made eye contact. Chris’ facial expression was now grim. Whatever the call was, it wasn’t good news.

“…right. I’ll start calling the guys in the morning and let them know.” Chris said in a somber tone. “I’ll let them enjoy the rest of the day.”

Smalls held his hands out in front of himself and rotated his palms upwards with shrugged shoulders and a look of curiosity.

Chris held out his right index finger, indicating that he would tell him in a moment. “Yes, Staff Sergeant. You’re welcome. Goodbye.”

“Dude, what’s going on?” Smalls inquired.

Chris shook his head. “That was it, brother. That was the call.”

“On Thanksgiving? They called on Thanksgiving to deploy us? What kind of shit is that?”

“The call was intended just for me. I’m supposed to tell the rest of the squad tomorrow. He didn’t know I’d be here with you.”

“Whatever. Now I know.” Smalls looked down at the ground, then back at Chris. “I guess we better tell the family and get back to base.”

“Yeah,” he said with a deep sigh of regret.

As they both entered the family room, all of the talking stopped. The looks on their faces grabbed the attention of everybody in the room.

“Why do you both look like you’ve lost your puppy?” Henry asked.

Smalls felt overcome by what had to be shared. He leaned against the doorway to support himself. “We just got some news that sucks.”

“You boys are getting deployed.” Henry said.

“Yeah, dad. We won’t be leaving for another couple weeks, but we just found out for sure.”

Chris tapped Smalls on the arm. “Look, you don’t have to come back from leave until Monday. I’ll catch an early flight back and I can meet you there. That way you can spend some extra time with your family.”

“Are you sure? I can go back with you.” Smalls asked with concern.

“Yeah, I’m positive. I’ll have to start working on some stuff, but you don’t. There’s no reason we both have to miss out on a few extra days with the family.”

“Okay, I guess you’re right. I’ll see you back at the barracks?”

Henry spoke up. “I can drive you to the airport.”

After long hugs and tearful goodbyes, Henry and Chris left. They drove together in silence. The Buick came to a stop in front of the airport entrance. Chris could tell Henry wanted to say something, but was struggling to get it out.

Staring out the front window, Henry found his voice. “So, the truth is that I’m a little scared. My only child is being deployed and the inherent dangers of military deployments are daunting. Then there’s you. You’ve been much more than my son’s best friend. You have been like a second son to Sarah and I. Alessandra loves you like a brother and so does my boy. We all love you very much…”

“I know. I love all of you too. You guys all are the most important people in the world to me.”

“I’m not gonna put the responsibility solely on you…and I’m gonna tell my boy the same thing.” Henry paused and swallowed. “You look out for each other over there. Watch each other’s backs. Okay? I want both of you back. Come home safe. I’ll be here waiting for you.”

“We will. We always do.” Then Chris added cautiously, “Thanks dad.” They sat for a moment together, unsure what else to say. “I’ll see you when I get home,” Chris said. Then he opened the car door and marched into the airport.

Tears streamed down Henry’s cheeks as he watched the young man walk away. “Take care of yourself, bud,” he said softly. “Take care and come home safe.”

A Friendly Reunion

August, 1999 – Camp Lejeune, NC


The maturing BMW twisted and turned through the jersey barriers. The concrete, triangular barriers created a serpentine path on the roadway that guided the BMW to a forced stop at the guard shack. The lance corporal military police officer waved the vehicle on after observing the red, enlisted sticker on the windshield. Chris pressed the accelerator, continuing down the straight and lengthy two lane roadway, through a corridor of luscious trees.

Approaching the busier portion of the base, red brick buildings dominated the landscape. Large steam pipes ran along the ground and jumped up at the edge of the roads to span across, allowing vehicles to pass beneath. Steam spewed out of sporadic joints, giving an industrial feel to the base, nestled in the middle of vast forests and nature. It was a hot, humid, sunny day.

Chris crept passed a platoon of Marines wearing olive drab shorts and shirts. They ran in formation while shouting cadence. Turning right, into a parking lot near a small brick building, he heard the brakes squeal lightly as his car eased into a parking space. Exiting his vehicle, Chris put his cover on and walked towards the bright red painted door.

He entered the building, took his cover off, and walked through the hallway that led straight into the heart of the mostly vacant section of the structure. The only sound in the hall was the clicking of Chris’ shoe on the tile floor. At the end of the hallway he arrived at an old, grey metal desk. Behind the desk was a Marine sipping coffee and reading the Marine Corps Times. Chris stopped and stood silently in front of the desk. Without moving his head or changing his body position, the Marine acknowledged Chris’ presence.

Once he reached the end of his article the Marine began to fold up his paper. “Good morning,” he said, focusing on folding the paper exactly. “What can I do for you?” His voice was monotone, as if he’d been saying the same thing to Marines every day for the last decade.  Like a skipping record player that needed to be bumped, he wasn’t thrilled to be there and had long before grown tired of the repetition.

“Good morning staff sergeant,” Chris said crisply as he fiddled with his cover behind his back “I’m here to check into 2nd Recon Battalion.”

“Very well then. I can help you get settled in. I’m Staff Sergeant Richards. Welcome to Camp Lejeune.” The Staff Sergeant stood up, held his hand out and lifted his head to see who he was speaking to. “You look familiar.” His curiosity was on the rise.

Chris shook his hand firmly. “I get that sometimes.”

“No, I think I remember your face from something. Or from somewhere.”

Chris didn’t want it to be brought up, so he forced his eyes to wander around the room and changed the subject. “So, uh…will I be billeted with other guys from two-two?

“Oh, right. Yeah.” SSgt Richards began to doubt his own memory and resumed his regular chit chat. “You just get finished with the Basic Recon Course?”

“Yeah, kinda. I finished BRC a few months ago, then graduated from scout sniper school last week.”

“How was it?”

“Brutal. It was awesome training, but freakin’ brutal.” Chris cracked a smile, showing signs of his proud accomplishments.

“That’s what I’ve heard.” SSgt Richards turned around and opened a small metal lock box that was mounted on the wall behind the desk. He scanned through the keys with his fingers, then picked one up. “Alright sergeant, here’s your key. You’ll be in building 3029, room 212, with a few other Marines.” He handed Chris the key. “I’ll get the paperwork submitted for your meal card. But in the mean time you can sign in at the front of the chow hall on the ‘temporary assignment’ sheet.”

“Thanks staff sergeant. I appreciate your help.”

“It’s no problem sergeant. Let me know if you need anything else.”

“I will.” Chris slid the key into his pocket and walked down the hallway of the decrepit brick building, exiting through the bright red door.

A short drive later, Chris arrived at a large, three story, red brick building bearing the numbers “3029”. He stepped out of his car, walked around to the back, and put his key in the trunk’s keyhole. He shook the key gently, applying a slight twisting pressure. “It should be right about…there.” He softly spoke to himself, willing the stubborn lock to comply. With more gentle jiggling the trunk popped open. He pulled his olive drab sea bag out and slung it over his left shoulder, then he spun around and walked up the concrete stairs to the second floor. Chris continued down the concrete balcony, until he arrived at room 212. Hesitating for a minute, he prepared himself to meet his new roommates. With the key in his hand, he raised it up to the doorknob.

“Put that shit away man! That’s fucking gross!” voices muffled through the door.

A different voice with a broken French accent replied, “Dude that smells like your mom’s…” The door to the room swung open and a short Marine came storming out, bumping into Chris.

“Oh shit, sorry sergeant,” the short Marine said with surprise. The Marine’s name was Corporal Barnum.  Born and raised in Trinidad, he was five feet six inches tall, and weighed 165 pounds. He had dark black skin, spoke with a thick accent, and wore his woodland digital camouflage uniform like almost everybody else in Camp Lejeune.

Chris looked down at the Marine. “Don’t worry about it corporal.” He nodded his head towards the door. “You live here?”

“Yes sergeant.”

“I guess that makes us roommates then.”

“Ah, man.” Corporal Barnum felt like he had ruined his only shot at a first good impression. He reached for the door.  “Here, let me get that for… Wait… You’re the guy from Camp Pendleton, right? You were awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal for saving the lives of like fifteen Marines?”

“It was only eleven. And it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

“It wasn’t a big deal? Sergeant, you were awarded the second highest non-combat medal possible and given a meritorious promotion for saving the lives of eleven Marines. I’d say that’s a big deal. The Marine Corps Times said you moved so fast that you looked like a blur. The title of the article was ‘Marine Saves Men in a Blur’.”

“Adrenaline helps men accomplish amazing things.” Chris pointed to the door with his right thumb. “Hey, you mind if I head in. This bag is getting heavy.”

“Oh, of course. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks.” Chris said as he walked through the door and took his cover off. He paused for a second to let his eyes adjust to the poorly lit room, after being outside in the bright sun.

“Son of a bitch!  What the hell are you doing here?”

Chris could barely make out the shape walking towards him. He could tell it was a man with a large stature.  “I’ve been assigned to this room,” Chris said, wondering who he was addressing, hoping it wasn’t going to be the third person this morning that was going to recognize him from the incident.

The large man wrapped his arms around Chris briefly hugging him, then let go and backed up a few steps. “It’s me man.”

Chris’ eyes lit up as his vision adjusted and he realized who he was talking to. “What are you doing here?”

“This is my room, man,” Smalls replied with a smile. “I live here.”

“No way. That’s crazy. What are the odds of that?”

“Welcome to our humble abode.” Smalls pointed behind Chris with his right index finger. “That dumbass there is Corporal Barnum.”  He used the thumb of his left hand to point behind himself. “The guy dropping a deuce in the head is Corporal Faulk, and of course you know who I am.” He finished his sentence, smacking himself on the chest with both hands. Smalls hit Corporal Bagley’s left bicep with the back of his hand. “Dude, this is my best friend, Chris. I went to boot camp with this guy.”

“So you’re joining 2-2?” Corporal Barnum asked hopefully.

“I’m here.”

“You’re just in time for all the fun then. We’re deploying in a few months.”

Chris looked at Smalls curiously. “Is he serious?”

“Yeah man, we’re slated to go to Iraq and kill some shit.”

“Awesome. I can finally put this training to good use,” Chris said reflectively.

“We’ve still got some time left here though, so make yourself comfortable.”  Smalls walked over to a bunk bed and smacked the mattress on the top.  “This one is all yours.  Unless you want to pull rank and take the bottom bunk from Corporal Faulk.”

The room was a little bit smaller than Chris’ old “studio” apartment back in Baltimore. It had two bunk beds and one bathroom. The walls were made of cinder blocks and painted a light beige color. The carpet was hard and didn’t have any padding to soften the concrete floor underneath. It was a standard Marine Corps barracks room.

“I won’t be a dick. I’ll take the top bunk.”

“Always the nice guy,” Smalls laughed as he walked over and sat on his bottom bunk. “I saw your name on the roster, said that you were checking in tomorrow.”

“That was the original plan, but I didn’t have anything better to do, so I figured I’d get it over with today.”

“Ah, I gotcha.”

Chris sat on Corporal Faulk’s bed. “How’s Alessandra and the family? Feels like it’s been a while since I’ve seen them.”

“Everybody is doing good. It’s been, what? About seven, eight months? We all hung out around New Years?”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.”

“Hey, how have you been holding up since the Pendleton thing?” He was concerned for Chris and didn’t want him being unnecessarily hard on himself. “We don’t have to talk about it. I just want you to know I’m here for ya, man.”

“I’m doin’ okay.” He said nodding his head. “Maybe we can talk more about it later.”

A muffled voice came from the bathroom, interrupting their conversation. “Aaarrgghh!” The toilet flushed. Corporal Faulk opened the bathroom door and stood still for a few seconds in the doorway. He was wearing only a pair of boxer briefs. Everybody in the room looked at him curiously.

“Everything come out okay?” Corporal Bagley asked with a look of concern on his face.

“Fuck yeah, bro!”

Corporal Faulk was a crude individual. It was rare that anything came out of his mouth without a curse word shortly behind it.  He was born and raised in a small farm town in Delaware.  His arms, chest, and parts of his legs were covered with tattoos.  Most of the tattoos were black and white and depicted an intricate biomechanical skeleton that appeared to be beneath his skin.  He was an average height of five feet, nine inches tall, weighing in at two hundred pounds of solid muscle and brawn.  He was constantly taking nutritional supplements to supply his body with added fuel for his workout routine.  Full of energy and enthusiasm, time spent with Corporal Faulk was always entertaining.

“That was possibly the best shit I’ve ever took without eating an MRE. I think I just gave birth to a god-damn telephone pole.” Corporal Faulk strolled over to the sink and began mixing his protein shake. “Maybe next time I won’t flush and let you check it out, Barnum.”

Only in the Marine Corps. You gotta love it.  Chris thought to himself, looking at Smalls as he chuckled.

Smalls knew exactly what he was thinking and began laughing. “Don’t ask man. He’s in a world of his own.”

Corporal Faulk chugged his protein shake, dropped down to the floor, and began doing pushups.

Corporal Barnum was still standing near the door. “Yeah, maybe next time Faulk.” He grasped the doorknob. “Hey, I’m starving guys. I’m gonna get some chow. Anybody coming?”

“Sixty Eight more push…uugh…ups and I’ll meet you down…argh…there, fuck face.” The response came from Corporal Faulk without a glance, as he continued to push the floor.

“Corporal Smalls? Sergeant? Either one of you coming?”

Chris waved his hand dismissively. “I’m gonna unpack the rest of my stuff, then I’ll head over.”

“We’ll catch up to ya, man.” Smalls said reluctantly.

“Okay, I’ll see you guys down there.” Corporal Barnum walked out of the door and shut it as he left.

Smalls turned back to Chris. “Hey, speaking of holidays, are we still good for Thanksgiving?”

“Yeah, of course. I wouldn’t miss it.”

Smalls’ cell phone rang. “I’ll be right back. It’s the wife.” He stood up off of his bed and walked out to the balcony, “Hey babe…” The door shut behind him.

“Hi baby. How’s your morning?” Alessandra’s soft Latin voice replied.

“It just got a little better. Guess who showed up early?”

“Chris? He’s always full of surprises. You didn’t tell him, did you?”

Smalls rubbed the temples of his head with the middle finger and thumb of his left hand. “No, I didn’t. This is hard for me.”

“I know, baby.”

“…hey, I’ll try to call you a little later, okay? We’re gonna go get some chow.”

“Alright, I love you baby. Bye. Oh, tell Chris I said ‘hi’.”

“Alright, I will. Love you too. Bye babe.”

Smalls slid his cell phone back into his pocket and walked back into their room. “You guys ready for chow, or what?”

Chris stood up. “Yeah, I can finish unpacking later.”

Smalls turned to Corporal Faulk, who was now doing sit-ups. “What about you, crazy? Ready?”

“Hell yeah corporal. I was just waiting for your intimate little conversation with your new boyfriend to be over.”

“Ha ha, shut up Faulker. Let’s go.”

A Pupil of Life Reaping

February, 2003

“Today we’re gonna give you some more ammunition for your body. You are training to be the most effective weapon in the world, but you can always improve on what you’ve already learned. Rifle’s and machine guns have bullets, but marines have MCMAP. I’m Sergeant Collins, and I’m going to teach you future warriors how to kill the son of a bitch, who’s trying to kill you. Are you ready?”

Over a hundred marine recruits shouted in response, “Sir, yes sir!”

Sergeant Collins was a black belt in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP), assigned to the Marine Recruit Depot in Paris Island, South Carolina. Although he was only five feet, eight inches tall, and a hundred-seventy pounds, he was an intimidating man, who had perfected the art of hand to hand combat. Like a wolverine, he may have been small in stature, but he was well versed in the tools that constructed monuments of pain and death.

MCMAP was the Frankenstein’s monster of Martial Arts. Experts in the various arts had collaborated, taking the most effective and lethal techniques from the different forms to create MCMAP. Its sole purpose was to end the fight quickly by seriously wounding or by killing the enemy. There was no scoring of points, no graceful maneuvers, and no stopping until the fight was finished. There are no elegant swords, no throwing stars, and no meditating. This hand to hand combat program incorporated the use and defense of assault rifles with bayonets, knives, and handguns. It was realistic and brutal.

“After I explain and demonstrate each maneuver, several other instructors, and myself will walk around and help you practice. Are you ready to kill?” the Sergeant barked.

The recruits responded again with excitement. “Kill!”

The recruits all looked the same: shaved heads, olive drab sweatshirts, woodland camouflage pants, and black boots. The pavilion they were training in was called Leatherneck Square. It’s about half the size of a football field. The floor was covered with a thick layer of sawdust and wood shavings. The roof of the pavilion provided shelter from the elements. It stood approximately twenty feet tall. At the front of the pavilion was a five-foot tall platform. The platform allowed the instructors to stand at an elevated position, so they could be seen by all of the recruits as they taught.

It was almost February and the weather was bitter cold. The instructor’s breath emitted a small cloud of vapor as he spoke.

“The first thing we’re gonna cover today is similar to a hip toss. I’ll walk you through it and explain it step by step. Sergeant Fitzpatrick, will you be my meat puppet?”

Sergeant Fitzpatrick ran up the stairs to the instructional platform. “Roger that, Sergeant Collins.”

“Sergeant Fitzpatrick, assume the fighting position.”

Stepping forward with his left foot, bending both knees, and raising both hands into fists on either side of his face, he announced with confidence, “Ready!”

Sergeant Collins assumed the same position directly in front of Sergeant Fitzpatrick and demanded the attention of the recruits.

“Alright, listen up. From the fighting stance, the first thing we need to do is deliver a softening blow.” He demonstrated a punch to Sergeant Fitzpatrick’s face, stopping inches from his nose. “Doing this will limit the ability of your opponent to react to the hell you’re about to rain down on him.”

“After distracting the enemy, we need to step to the outside of his left foot, with our left foot. Like this. With every step, we want to cause some damage. So on the way into this step, you need to punish him. I don’t care how you do it. Use some imagination. Grab his balls as hard as you can with your left hand and crush his adam’s apple using a hammer fist with your right hand. I don’t give a shit what you do. But do something that makes him regret crossing your path.” He stopped for a second to allow the recruits time to mentally digest the information.

“Now that we’re up close and personal, it’s time to put this son of a bitch on the deck, right? You’re gonna sweep your right foot clockwise, making a semicircle with your right foot.”

Sergeant Fitzpatrick was now off balance, with his back arched backwards, and some of his lower body leaning on Sgt Collins’ left thigh.

“With some speed and intensity, I’m gonna introduce this poor bastard’s back to the deck. I’m gonna do this by using his own body weight and the momentum of my spin to throw him as hard as I can onto the deck.”

Sergeant Collins completed the final throw, causing Sergeant Fitzpatrick’s back to slam on the ground.

“You guys have been doing this for several weeks now, so what needs to happen next?”

The recruits voices roared inside the pavilion. “Kill!”

With a smile that was filled with pride and a twisted sense of pleasure, Sergeant Collins scanned the crowd of recruits with his eyes.

“That’s fuckin’ right. A finishing touch to end this shit-bags life. And I think that crushing his grape is the perfect ending.”

He raised his right knee almost to his chest, then drove the heel of his right boot down with all he could muster into the ground, inches from Sergeant Fitzpatrick’s head, simulating the stomping of his opponent’s head. “Kill!”

Chris absorbed these classes like a dry sponge thrown into a swimming pool. The techniques came naturally to him. He was learning fast and liked feeling successful.

Sergeant Collins turned toward the recruits. “Remember, we’re not here to hurt or kill each other. I want to see you move with speed and intensity, but save the ball grabbing and throat smashing for the real thing. Understand that?”

The crowd shouted in response, “Sir, yes sir!”

All of the recruits partnered up with each other and began practicing the newly learned maneuver on each other. Today, Chris’ partner was Recruit Smalls, who, ironically wasn’t small at all. He was six feet, four inches tall, and weighed two-hundred-ten pounds. In high school Smalls had been a state champion wrestler. Like many big fish who were raised in small ponds, Smalls’ cup overflowed with self-confidence and arrogance.

Recruit Smalls smirked at Chris. “Psshh, You can go first.”

They both assumed the fighting position and Chris began to prepare himself mentally. His thoughts began to race and he fought to control them. He slowed his breathing. He reminded himself to concentrate on balancing. He could visualize every movement, feel the resistance of his opponent’s body mass, and anticipate the reaction of his body trying to stay upright.

Chris stepped forward with his left foot, placing it just outside of Smalls’ left foot, and placing his hands flat on Smalls’ chest simultaneously. He swept his right foot around in a clockwise semicircle and applied force to Smalls’ chest with his hands. Smalls’ back slammed on the sawdust and pushed the air out of his lungs. Chris followed up with the foot stomp next to Smalls’ head. “Kill!”

The hip toss was performed flawlessly. Chris’ movements flowed together seamlessly and without loss of momentum.

Smalls eyes were wide open in shock and he was moaning on the ground as he gasped for air.

Chris held his hand out, gesturing to Smalls that he was helping him to stand up.

“God damn! Collins, did you see that?” Sergeant Fitzpatrick looked at Sergeant Collins in surprise.

Sergeant Collins was intrigued. He watched Chris help Smalls back up to his feet. “I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever seen a recruit handle himself like that before.”

“I’m tellin you right now, I haven’t”

Sergeant Collins looked at Sergeant Fitzpatrick and nodded his head towards Chris. “Let’s go talk to him.”

Smalls glanced over and saw the instructors walking towards them. “This recruit wasn’t ready for that! Try it again.” He raised his voice, hoping that the instructors would hear believing he could re-establish his dominance the second time around.

Sergeant Collins approached Smalls. “You in a rush to get man handled again, recruit Smalls?”

“Sir, no sir. This recruit wasn’t ready, sir.”

“Oh, so your partner sucks donkey dick, possesses no talent whatsoever, and you tripped over a piece of sawdust. Is that it? You let a tiny piece of wood kick your pansy ass like a little bitch? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“Sir, uhhh…yea…well no…sir, no sir!”

“Shut your mouth Smalls! Let me know when you’re ready, because he’s gonna try it again and I don’t want any excuses coming out of your pathetic little mouth! Are we clear?”

“Sir, yes sir!”

Smalls faced Chris and stood in the fighting position. He is determined not to be humiliated again and is doing his best to plant himself to the ground, as if he had roots coming out of his feet, burrowing into the ground to stabilize his body.

Sgt Collins looked at Chris. “How about you recruit? Are you ready?”

Chris looked back at him with confidence. “Sir, yes sir!”

“Go ahead recruit. Take him to the deck.”

WHAM! With the speed of a hummingbird’s wing, Chris performed a perfect hip toss again. “Kill!” he screamed as his boot slammed into the floor inches from Small’s head.

Sergeant Collins turned around and looked at Sergeant Fitzpatrick in amazement. Sergeant Fitzpatrick mouthed the words “Holy shit”.

Keeping his composure and straight face, Sergeant Collins looked down at Smalls, where he laid on the ground, gasping for air.

“Let me guess. You tripped over your ego again? Maybe you should learn to compliment your fellow recruits, instead of making excuses, trying to make yourself sound better.”

Sergeant Collin’s maintained his focus on Smalls, but held his left arm out and pointed at Chris.

“How many times have you practiced this move?”

Chris responded with uncertainty, “Sir, including the one Sergeant Collins just observed. Two, sir.”

Sergeant Collins turned and looked at Chris, while still pointing at him. “And you’ve never done this before?”

“Sir, no sir.”

“Then explain to me how the hell you just put this pussy on his ass, twice. Because you moved so fast and smooth, I would put money down that you’ve had prior training.”

Chris tried to think of an explanation, but he didn’t really even know the answer himself.

“Sir, uh…balance sir.”

“No shit. Smalls, the clutz down there doesn’t have any. I’m talking about you.”

“Sir, no sir. I meant it’s this recruit’s balance. …like Tai Chi, sir.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Like that shit crazy old ladies do to stretch and relax?”

Chris knew that as a recruit he couldn’t talk freely to the instructor and would never be able to fully explain the true art of Tai Chi, so he decided to cut his losses.

“Sir, yes, it’s something like that sir.”

“You hear this shit Sergeant Fitzpatrick? This recruit fights like an old lady and still kicked Smalls’ ass.”

Sergeant Collins waved his hand at Chris. “You know what. I don’t give a rat’s ass. Whatever you’re doin’, keep it up.

“Sir, yes sir.”

Later that night, Chris’ entire platoon was sitting on their wooden foot lockers Their foot lockers were all aligned with the foot of their beds, with the main aisle dividing them into two sides. The recruits were allowed to talk quietly, as long as they didn’t get carried away. Most of the recruits were writing letters to their families.

Smalls glared at Chris with vindictive eyes from across the aisle. “What the fuck do you think you were doing today?”

Chris didn’t want conflict so he chose to ignore the question.

“I’m talking to you, jackass,” Smalls demanded.

Chris looked up at Smalls with curiosity. “This recruit is wondering why recruit Smalls is referring to himself in the first person. Recruit Smalls should know that he could get this whole platoon in the sand pit for shit like that.”

“Oh, okay.” Smalls said angrily as he sat up straight and pressed his fists firmly into the footlocker he was sitting on. “Being a smart ass isn’t gonna get you out of this.” Smalls took up a mocking tone. “This recruit is pretty sure that we’re training with pugil sticks tomorrow and this recruit is gonna see to it that that sorry ass recruit is put on his ass.”

Shaking his head, Chris responded. “This recruit doesn’t understand recruit Smalls’ anger. All of these recruits are on the same team and should be helping each other. This recruit was only trying to do his best today. It wasn’t meant to be personal.”

“Stop trying to get out of it, shit for brains. These recruits will see who’s better tomorrow.”

The next day came earlier than the day before, as was the case in the Corps.

“Good morning recruits!” Sergeant Collins shouted.

The recruits sat in a semicircle around their instructor. “Sir, good morning sir!” They shouted back.

“Today we’re gonna give you a chance to kill each other with a bayonet. However, this bayonet is a pugil stick. The red pad at the end of the stick simulates the bayonet on the end of your rifle. The black pad at the other end will be the buttstock of your rifle. A strike to the torso or head with the bayonet is a kill. The only way to get a kill with the buttstock, is a strike to the head. If a recruit falls off the bridge, they are dead. Are there any questions?”

One of the recruits raised his hand. The others around him moaned and grumbled. The recruit with his hand up was wearing thick framed military issued glasses and the lenses looked like they were half an inch thick. Every day this same recruit had questions. Every question served only to piss the instructors off. Pissed off instructors made life harder for the other recruits.

Sergeant Collins looked at the recruit who had his hand raised, wondering what he could possibly have to ask. “Yes, recruit. What’s your question?”

The recruit stood up to address the instructor. “Sir, this recruit was wondering if these recruits have to like hop on one leg if they get hit on the leg with a bayonet, or something? Like it was cut off or something, sir?”

“You’re fucking kidding me, right?” Sergeant Collins’ facial expression was a mix between intense fury and bewilder.  Sergeant Collins stood in absolute silence, as if waiting for the recruit to know better. Beads of sweat ran down the recruit’s face as he realized how stupid his question actually was.

After what felt like an eternity, Sergeant Collins pointed at the recruit and yelled, “Sit the fuck down, before I kill you.”

The recruit sat down with the speed of a viper, letting out a breath of air that he didn’t even know that he had been holding in his lungs.

“Let me clarify.” Sergeant Collins said as he looked back and forth across the crowd of sitting recruits. “You will not jump around on one leg. You will not put your hand behind your back if it gets hit by the bayonet. All you will do is try to kill the scumbag in front of you, until one of you is dead. You will know if someone dies, because I will blow this dag-gone whistle! Do you understand?”

The roar of the future warriors sounded off. “Sir, yes sir.”

“That’s more like it! Form a column of two’s.”

The recruits moved like a school of fish, until they had formed two columns, leading to the fighting bridge. The fighting bridge was four feet wide, twenty feet long, and stood two feet off of the ground. It was sturdy, built similar to a residential deck. Below the bridge were several inches of mulch, which would break the fall of an unfortunate recruit who’d lost his battle.

Smalls locked his eyes on Chris. He skillfully moved through the crowd, cutting in line while counting heads. He was determined to ensure he was in line to oppose his new nemesis.

Each group of two recruits would enter onto the bridge and simulate a fight to the death. Some fights were long, but most were very short. As Chris watched a sad reality struck him. He saw that a real fight to the death wasn’t a long drawn out duel like Hollywood portrays. There was no glorious struggle. There was no heroic death lock. There was no witty banter. The whole encounter only lasted a few seconds. That was all he would have – a few seconds to ensure he lived and some other poor sap died. Another battle on the bridge began, and Chris’ thoughts turned to Smalls. He didn’t want to make things worse by defeating him again, but he also didn’t want to throw the fight and let Smalls win. Chris began playing out different versions of the fight in his head. A realization pricked his heart. Walking through each scene he realized he could do his absolute best, but still loose.

There were only a few recruits in front of Chris now. Smalls began to hum the song Another One Bites the Dust. Chris decided. The right thing to do was give the battle all he had and let the cards fall as they may.

The recruits in front of them were next and began to put on helmets and groin protectors.

The battle on the bridge ended quickly. Chris began putting on his protective gear. He looked up and watched as Smalls did the same.

The whistle blew.

“Next two.” Sergeant Collins yelled as he waved them onto the bridge.

Smalls leaped in with arrogance. He jogged to the far end of the bridge, then turned and returned to the center, shaking his head left, then right to crack his neck. Chris briskly walked in, calming himself, and preparing for the imminent brawl. Face to face, with their pugil sticks held up, they waited for the whistle.

“Ready for this? ‘Cause I’m about to kick your ass,” Smalls said, with a smirk on his face.

The whistle blew.

Smalls charged Chris, pushing his pugil stick forward with both hands. Chris anticipated an aggressive kill strike, not a forceful push. It took him off guard. He absorbed the full force of the push, and fell backwards, stumbling, then falling onto his back. Chris was impressed by the strength of his opponent.

Smalls advanced towards Chris’ right side, thrusting his bayonet towards Chris’ chest. Chris’ veins surged with adrenaline. His thoughts sped to a mile per minute. He used the buttstock end of his pugil stick to deflect Smalls’ bayonet, while kicking his right leg into Small’s back calves. Smalls fell on his butt and Chris completed a full circle with the buttstock, bringing it in alignment for a strike to Smalls’ head.

“Balance. Continue the momentum until it’s no longer needed,” Chris thought to himself as he thrust the buttstock towards Smalls’ head. Smalls leaned forward, dodging the attack. Chris’ buttstock missed, just to the left of his head. “Momentum,” Chris thought as he continued pushing the pugil stick forward, pulling his body with it, up to his knees, behind Smalls.

Chris’ movements were fast and fluid. Smalls almost lost track of Chris’ location and began to turn towards him, rolling to his right, onto his knees, placing the pugil stick with his fists on the ground to steady himself. Chris locked his sight onto Smalls’ head out of the corner of his left eye, and as he turned his body to the left, the bayonet turned with it, like the turret of a tank. He lunged forward, thrusting his bayonet towards Smalls’ head. Smalls looked up to reacquire his sight of Chris. He found his opponent just in time to see the tip of Chris’ bayonet accelerating towards his face, inches away. The end of the pugil stick smashed into Smalls’ helmet, snapping his head backwards, and sending him back to the ground.

Sergeant Collins opened his mouth just enough to let the whistle fall out and drop to his chest, where the lanyard caught it. “Good fight, recruits. Well done. Now get off my bridge. Next two!”

Chris stepped over to Smalls and extended his hand, offering to help him up. Smalls reluctantly accepted and pulled himself up. They both made eye contact for a moment before Smalls walked away. Chris didn’t know what to say. He wondered if this rivalry would continue until their graduation.

Most of the recruits looked forward to Sunday. The anticipation had nothing to do with religion or wanting to go to church, even though most of them attended the services. Church was the only place where drill instructors weren’t haunting their every move. In fact, drill instructors didn’t step foot in the building. It was like being free for two hours, without stress, and the worry of doing something wrong.

Chris’ platoon had just finished marching to the church from their barracks, and dismissed from formation. Each recruit filed through the main entrance, taking off their covers as they crossed the threshold of the building.

The church auditorium was large and elaborate for a modern building. It had stained glass windows around the outside that depicted famous Marine battles through history. One of the main windows pictured two Marines in their dress blues guarding the gates of heaven, with a crowd of soldiers, sailors, and airmen lined up to enter. The tall ceilings had wooden beams sprawling out from the center of the room towards the outside, similar to a spider web without the smaller cross members.

Church was also a way to see the progression of the different battalions. The recruits could tell how far along each other were in their training. They were small, subtle things that most people wouldn’t pick up on. During the first couple weeks, the recruits wore tennis shoes, instead of boots. After that, they wore boots, but didn’t blouse their trousers around them. Then they bloused their trousers around their boots. In the last couple weeks, recruits stop getting their entire head shaved, and their hair started to get cut with the almost trademark “jarhead” style. The recruits with the jarhead haircuts were respected. They were almost finished with boot camp. They were close to earning the title of “Marine”.

Filing into the church pew, Chris heard some loud whispering.

“By your leave recruit. Excuse this recruit. Thanks.”

He turned around to see what was happening and saw that Smalls was working his way past the other recruits, towards him. Chris arrived at his seat on the pew and sat down, wondering what Smalls was up to.

Smalls squeezed past a couple more recruits. “Excuse this recruit. Do you mind if this recruit sits here?” He said to another recruit, as he was pointing to a space just big enough for him to sit , between the recruit and Chris.

Chris inched over as much as he could to give Smalls a little more room to sit.

The navy chaplain walked up to the pulpit, wearing his dress blue uniform. The Marines don’t have chaplains. They don’t have their own medics either. But, being a department of the navy allowed them to work together, utilizing the navy’s chaplains and corpsmen (the navy’s version of a medic). “Let’s stand and sing praise to our Lord.”

The soft sounds of wooden pews creaked across the auditorium as hundreds of recruits stood up.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved…” The recruits voices filled the room as they sang together in unison.

Smalls leaned slightly towards Chris and began to speak just loud enough for Chris to hear. “I was the undefeated state wrestling champion in my senior year of high school. Un-de-feat-ed. I’ve never been beat the way you beat me with the pugil stick.” Smalls paused for a second and shook his head. “I just can’t figure it out. I’m bigger than you. I’m stronger than you. But, you still beat me. I don’t know man. I just can’t figure out how you did it.” Smalls leaned back over, standing upright with his hands firmly planted on the pew in front of him.

Chris leaned towards Smalls. “Strength and size isn’t everything in a fight.” Chris stopped to think about what he should say. “Your strength is impressive man. When you pushed me after that whistle blew, I thought you had me. You caught me and had me on my back. It was close.”

“I thought I had you too.” Smalls looked at Chris and couldn’t help but smile. “Look, I’ve been thinking about how shit has been between us, and I was thinking about what you said. The bottom line is that I would rather have you fighting next to me when the shit hits the fan, than most of these other nutbags.”

“Same here, man. I’d fight next to you any day of the week. You’re a tough dude.”

The song ended and cut off their conversation. The chaplain spoke for a few minutes about the struggles of life, relating it to the struggles of boot camp, then started another song.

“Our God is an awesome God he reigns…”

Smalls leaned over again. “So we’re cool then?”

“Yeah man. Don’t worry about it. We’re good,” Chris said with relief. He was happy the conflict was over and looked forward to training with Smalls in the future. Smalls was motivated and strong. He was determined, aggressive, and had grit. Chris liked that and thought it was a good contrast to his own temperament and skills.

It was graduation day. Four platoons stood in formation on the parade deck. They were each perfectly aligned and standing like statues, donning their dress Alpha uniforms. The dress Alpha uniform consists of glossy black shoes, a circular dark green dress cover, dark green trousers, and a dark green coat, with a long sleeved collared khaki shirt and tie underneath. All of the new Marines were proud of their accomplishments. They could hardly wait to meet with their families again after twelve weeks of intense training.

The new Marines’ families were sitting in the sun covered, aluminum bleachers, admiring the discipline and structure of their young warriors. The sand fleas were out in full force, subjecting the families to their itchy bites. Bug spray was hardly deterring the tiny pests. As the Marines awaited their last command from their senior drill instructor to dismiss them, they scanned the bleachers for their loved ones. They were also being eaten alive by the little flying menaces, but their training and discipline was paying off, and they ignored the nagging itch that begged to be scratched. It was how much they had actually changed, as they watched the crowd in the bleachers uncontrollably itching and smacking themselves to eliminate the irritating bugs.

The First Sergeant yelled out a command to the senior drill instructors. “Senior drill instructors, dismiss your platoons!”

Simultaneously, each senior drill instructor responded. “Aye First Sergeant” Then they did an about face in unison, turning 180 degrees, and were now facing their respective platoons. “Marines, dismissed!”

“Aye, senior drill instructor! Oohrah!” The platoons took one step backwards, then about faced. They were finished with bootcamp.

The new Marines shook each others hands and congratulated each other on their accomplishments. The families stormed the parade deck, homing in on their beloved ones, fighting through the crowds they had inadvertently created themselves. Families were crying and hugging their newly disciplined Marines in amazement at how different they were.

“Recruit… I mean Chris. Come here, I want you to meet my family.” Smalls was waving towards himself, hoping to get Chris’ attention amongst the crowd.

It had been a while since Chris was in a family environment. He walked over to Smalls with a smile on his face, feeling a little nervous.

“Chris, this is my mom, Sarah and my dad, Henry. …and this beautiful thing here is my girlfriend, Alessandra. Everybody, this is Chris”

Chris extended his arm and shook Henry’s hand, immediately taking notice of his firm, calloused hand. “It’s good to meet you, sir.” Swinging his arm towards Sarah’s hand and gently shaking her soft, caring hand. “Ma’am.” He said, nodding his head slightly. Turning slightly to the right and holding his hand out to shake Alessandra’s hand. She shook it delicately, saying “I’ve heard quite a bit about you”.

“Like how I beat him with the pugil sticks?” Chris said, with a big smile.

Smalls chuckled. “How about we not talk about that, ever” He pushed Chris’ shoulder, as he laughed a little more.

Henry patted Smalls’ back and held his hand there. “Well, I hate to be the party pooper, but we need to get scootin’ son. Our flight leaves in a few hours.”

After the completion of boot camp, the new Marines were given ten days of leave, before having to report to combat training, or the school of infantry.

Chris and Smalls shook hands, then pulled each other in for a manly hug.

“I’ll see ya man. Maybe at SOI?” Smalls said as they separated from the hug.

“Yeah, that’s definitely possible. See ya bud.” Chris shook everybody’s hand once more. “It was nice to meet all of you.”

“It was nice to meet you too. Take care.” Henry said, before turning around and walking away, holding Sarah’s hand.

Smalls put his arm around Alessandra and waved with his hand on the other side of her head as they turned and walked away.

“Hey, don’t forget about balancing!” Chris said loudly to Smalls as he was walking further away.Smalls didn’t turn around, but held his left hand up and waved backwards to Chris. “Ha ha. Yeah, yeah.”

Chris watched Smalls’ family as they walked away, until they all piled in their Buick and drove off.  He stood there for a few minutes relishing the time he had just spent with them, until he came to the realization that it was time to go.  He walked over to the roadway and sat on a bench, patiently awaiting the next bus off of the island.

Pay Dirt


October, 2002

The apartment consisted of one room; two if you count the bathroom. If it had been located in an up-and-coming neighborhood, or over a popular bar, or dressed up with hardwood floors and fancy appliances, people might have called it a “studio.” But it was far from being a hip, or cool, or modern bachelor pad that might warrant such a fancy name. Rather, Chris’ apartment was a small dry-walled cube decorated only with left over take out containers.

A normal sized person could barely fit in the bathroom, and the kitchen could only be described as an eye sore that destroyed all ambiance in the living room, or was it the bedroom? There were no any pictures hung, no lamps, no flowers, no knickknacks, no decorations of any kind. All four walls were painted flat white. There was a futon, a coffee table, and an old television on top of a cardboard box. The television antenna was made of tin foil and pieces of old clothes hangers. But Chris didn’t care. He didn’t mind the small size. The apartment was home. Besides, it’s all he could afford, and he wouldn’t be there long. His days in the place were numbered.

At 3:50am the clock screamed “BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.” Chris was not a morning person. He cracked his eyes open and wondered how many times he’d already smacked the snooze button. Deciding the contraption had not had enough punishment yet, Chris reached his arm out and pounded on it once more.

The clock screamed again. Chris rolled over and squinted at the bright red digital numbers to check the time. “Shit”, he shouted, as he realized how long he’d overslept. This was Chris’ routine: pound on the alarm, oversleep, curse himself for getting up late. He jumped out of bed and darted to the bathroom to brush his teeth.

“Son-of-a,” he yelled as he kicked the coffee table with his right foot, jamming the leg of the table between his two smallest toes.

Five minutes was all Chris needed to get out of the apartment door and start driving to the park-and-ride. His boss, Willy was use to Chris’ routine. But that didn’t make Chris feel any better about it. Especially since Chris’ time with the big man was running out. He’d hoped to impress his boss before he was taken away.

Chris’ clothes were old and sloppy. It was difficult to find a spot unstained with dried paint, caulk, PVC glue, green pipe sealant, or remnants of a past lunch. His boots were the cheapest ones he could find at Walmart. They hurt his feet. His jeans were faded and the bottoms of them were frayed. He wore multiple layers to keep warm during the winter. He couldn’t care less about how he looked.

Driving in the vicinity of Chris was never boring. He cursed loudly out the window at slow drivers. He yelled pointlessly at traffic lights. He leaned on his horn if someone, even an old lady with a walker, tried to cross the street in front of him. It was a miracle he made it to the park-and-ride without killing someone.

Willy was always there, waiting in the far corner of the parking lot. Chris jerked his second hand BMW to a halt in the spot next to where Willy was standing. Willy stuck his head out of the driver’s window of his car and yelled, “It’s about damn time!” The greeting made Chris smile. He was going to miss it.

Willy was a tall, burly man in his mid-thirties. His look was as unchanging as the face of a mountain: a five o’clock shadow, short dark hair, strong chin and broad shoulders. Willy’s hands were huge, each finger was as thick as two average sized fingers. He wasn’t fit, but he was freakishly strong and had an ungodly high tolerance for pain. Chris had seen the brute injure himself on multiple occasions, but then continue working as if nothing had happened. These attributes combined with his heavy forehead made Willy a shoe-in for a role on television as a caveman.

Chris hopped out of his car, and grabbed his tools from the back seat. In his hurry, he flung his hammer under the car next to him. “Ugh” he mumbled to himself, as he laid down on the asphalt to retrieve it.

Willy stuck his head out of the window again. “This is no time for a nap. You can sleep in the car. Get up off the ground. And don’t forget that we’re doing groundwork today. You forgetting something?”

Chris turned around and walked back to his car. He fumbled in his pocket for his keys. He knew exactly what Willy wanted him to have. He struggled to get his trunk unlocked. The key had to go in just right or the car would refuse to open. In frustration, Chris whacked the lid with both hands and yelled, “Damn this car!”

“Take a breath and slow down,” Willy called. “But hurry your ass up. We’ve got to go.”

Chris breathed. Then he tried the key again. He felt it click into place. The trunk swung open and maneuvered the shovel out of the car. With the tool in hand, he walked back to Willy’s truck and threw everything into the bed. Climbing into the cab Chris asked, “Why do I need to bring a shovel, if you already have three in the bed of your truck?”

Willy put the truck in gear and began to drive out of the parking lot. “Because those are my shovels. Not your shovels. Every good construction worker should have his own tools.”

Chris should have known. He had heard Willy’s rants before about how a construction worker should buy at least one tool per paycheck until he had everything that he needed.

The only thing Willy talked about more than tools was the Marines. Willy had hoped to spend his life in the Corps, but he had been discharged after a year for a back injury. Chris thought at that moment about telling Willy what his plans were. He glanced over at the big man and felt a pain of sorrow.

Chris didn’t know if Willy understood, but the man was more than Chris’ boss. He was the first adult who’d given Chris a real chance. Chris started to speak, but Willy turned up the talk radio so he could catch up on his daily dose of politics. Chris sighed and decided he’d tell Willy everything during lunch. “Lunch was a better time to talk,” he thought. Rolling over in his seat, he pulled his sweatshirt hood over his head, leaned against the door, and began his napping routine.

Today’s job site was two hours away. They would be installing the waste line for a new military recruiting office. It was a big project that would take seven months to finish. As he drifted off Chris wondered who Willy would find to take his place.

At five-minutes-to-six Willy punched Chris in the arm. “Wake up!” he yelled in Chris’ ear, causing Chris to lurch in a panic. This sent Willy into an uproar of laughter.

Chris zipped up his jacket and forced himself out of the warm truck and into the cold, crisp air. It was December and still dark outside. A voice came from the trench in the ground they had dug out yesterday, “Hey there feller.”

Chris walked around the corner of the truck and saw Carl’s head poking out of the ditch. No one knew how old Carl was, but they all assumed he was old. His back was hunched, his teeth were all yellowish-grey, and his hair was mostly white. He smoked three packs of unfiltered cigarettes per day and could barely finish a sentence without coughing. He was also an alcoholic and was infamous for disappearing for long periods of time. Willy kept him on the crew because Carl knew everything there was about plumbing. He was their go to guy for pipe work.

“The wind ain’t as bad down here,” Carl said with a laugh and a cough.

Walking down the slope, into the ditch, Chris saw the old man was right. “You weren’t kidding, old-timer,” Chris said.

“Enough chit-chat,” Willy called from the top of the ditch. He tossed the four shovels in and descended into the ditch next to his guys. “Let’s get to digging.”

They worked in silence for the rest of the morning. Twelve-thirty found the three men sitting in a small circle on cinder blocks, as they took their lunch break. Carl magically ate a sandwich and calmly smoked a cigarette at the same time.

In contrast, Willy ate like it was the first meal he’d had in a month. He shoved mounds of chips and bites of sandwiches down his throat. It was like watching trash go down a disposal.

Chris smiled at the two men. “This is a good time,” he thought. “I should tell them now.”

He’d said the same thing to himself every day for the past three weeks. This time he was sure it was going to work. He opened his mouth, but the words didn’t come. It was going to be hard to leave them. They were the closest thing he had to family.

“Good afternoon gentlemen,” a strong voice said from behind Chris. Chris turned around and saw the Marine from the recruitment office. He looked commanding in his dress blue uniform. The Marine wore a white circular dress cap with the short, shiny black bill. His khaki shirt was tucked in tight. Even the creases on his shirt had been meticulously ironed. His blue dress pants were the same. They had red stripes that ran vertically down the outside, center of the pants. The cuffs sat perfectly on the top of his impeccably shiny black shoes. His belt buckle was aligned with the zipper of the pants and the center buttoned flap of his shirt. The belt buckle, the insignia on the front of his cap, and his medals were all spotlessly shined and glistened in the sunlight. He wasn’t the most muscular guy, but he was definitely in shape, with very little body fat. To Chris, the recruiter seemed perfect. Nothing was out of place. He was like a superhero.

“Hey, gunny! Semper Fi!” Willy said loudly and with pride, as he stood up, saluted the recruiter.

“I’m Gunnery Sergeant O’Neil,” the recruiter said, shaking Willy’s hand. I know you guys just started the job, but I wanted to stop by, see how things were going. We appreciate the work you’re doing.”

The Marine was a mystery to Chris. He was confused by how someone could look so intense but relaxed, confident but nice, busy but pristine – all at once. It struck Chris why Sergeant O’Neil had come. Chris cursed himself under his breath for procrastinating.

“Somebody’s gotta do it,” Willy said, with his goofy laugh.

“That’s a fancy uniform you’ve got there,” Carl said, as he hacked. “Sure beats the shit you’re wearing,” the old man said whacking Chris in the leg. Turning back to the Marine Carl added with a hack, “How much did all those fancy medals cost ya?” Chris was confused.

“I thought the government gave those to him?” Chris said. “You’ve got to buy that stuff yourself?”

Carl, Willy, and the Marine laughed. Willy lovingly rubbed the teen’s head. “No, no, no,” Carl started, but was interrupted by a coughing fit. Willy picked up where Carl left off. “He didn’t buy them. He earned them.”

“Those things can be expensive,” Carl said, recovering. He took a long drag of his cigarette and continued. “My brother was in Nam. Came back with a whole bunch of those shiny metals, but left his mind and soul overseas.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” the marine recruiter said sadly. With a smile he did exactly what Chris hoped he wouldn’t. “Mine didn’t cost that much,” he said. Then nodding to Chris he added, “I have no doubt you’ll earn a set just like this one. You ready to ship out?”

Willy and Carl looked at Chris in shock. “What’s he talking about?” Willy said.

“You know how when we started the job I went in to the bathroom,” Chris said staring at his feet. “Yep,” Carl said puffing on his cigarette.

“You were gone for an hour. Willy and I thought you were in there jerking off or something.”

“I was enlisting,” Chris said, choking back tears, afraid they’d be angry, they’d yell at him, they’d feel abandon, they’d tell him it was a big mistake.

“You were what?” Willy said astounded.

The words poured from Chris in a rapid fire of emotion. “I wanted to tell you but I was nervous you’d be upset and all since you gave me this great job. It’s not that I don’t like it. I love working for you and everything, but you’re always talking about your time in the Corps and stuff and so I thought, I need something like that too, you know? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love working with you and everything and I’m really thankful, it’s just, it feels right you know.” The dam burst and tears leaked from his eyes. He waited, looking at the ground, sad he hurt this man who’d given him so much.

“How long do we have until you ship out?” Willy said.

“Two days,” the recruiter replied for Chris.

“Well what in the hell are we doing in this hole,” Willy yelled, smacking Chris on the back. “We should be celebrating! Let’s go get a real lunch. Beer’s on me!”

“Beer!” Carl cheered, jumping up from his seat.

“None for you,” Willy said pointing at the old man.

“Well shit,” Carl said, sitting back down.

Willy wrapped his massive arms around the teen and lifted him up off the ground in a huge hug. “I’m so proud of you,” he whispered in Chris’ ear. A wave of acceptance and joy came over Chris. Willy put Chris down on the ground and looked up at the marine. “You’re more than welcome to join us Gunny,” the big man said.

“Thank you, sir. But I’ll have to say no. I’ve still got work to do today,” Sergeant O’Neil said with a smile. Then nodding to Chris again he said, “I’ll see you in two days. Don’t be late.”

“Oh he won’t be,” Willy said, smacking Chris on the back again. “Now let’s get out of here. We’ve got partying to get to. Our little Chris is joining the Corps.”

Climbing into the truck Chris said, “Hey Willy, you know I’m only nineteen right?”

“Yep,” Willy said as he started the truck. “But don’t tell the waitress that or no beer for you either.”

On Elesea’s Watch

1979, Northeast, MD

Elesea moved with silent swiftness, following the faded outline of the vehicle that held her target. Her loose fitting pants and tunic left freedom for movement. The lack of wind or air prevented the light grey fabric from the sound of rustling as she moved.

Through the veil, the car was almost invisible, but stood out against the still trees it passed by. Elsesea feared the vehicle would change pace at any moment. The relative change in size and space between Midian and Reality was not consistent. Currently, Elesea could run through Midian and keep pace with the vehicle speeding along the highway in Reality. At any moment, proportions could change, but for this particular stretch of land it was fairly simple.

The Architect had impressed upon her the importance of following the driver of the car, Suzanna, on her journey back to Baltimore. He’d made it clear her mission would require the assistance of others, that this was beyond her ability to complete alone. He’d said the involvement of others she trusted should occur before she crossed the river into Havre de Grace, but nothing more.

“The Harbor of Grace. That’s a great name for a place. Somehow I don’t think that this will be as peaceful as it sounds. Otherwise I wouldn’t need help,” Elesea mumbled to herself as she jumpped a stump, struggling to navigate the terrain of Midian and watch the car in Reality.


Bashi sighed loudly. He rolled his eyes and glared at Hyoi.

“Your patience is commendable,” Hyoi said, not looking at his partner.

Bashi spoke through a yawn. “Hyoi, this is crazy. The Architect is a myth, a bedtime story. No one talks to bedtime stories. I think Elesea may be a little touched in the head. This is crazy.”

“I trust her.”

“Everyone can be trusted until they show that they can’t be. I was chatting with Reality’s Easter Bunny yesterday. He said there’s amazing coffee in the land of Seattle we should try. Don’t worry, you can trust me.”

Hyoi did not reply.

“What exactly did she say?”

“She said that she was bringing someone to meet us. Someone in whom we would find a common mind. She also said that she believed that our help would be needed.”

“And she said that we were supposed to be standing on this particular hill, next to a river, at dusk, waiting for her to show up? There are a lot question marks. I don’t like it.”

Hyoi again did not reply.  He kept his eye focused on the horizon.

“Are you sure this is the place?”

“She said that she would be along after sunset.”

“Why are we hiding in the trees?”

Hyoi did not respond.

Bashi dropped into a cross leg sitting position, sweeping the swords at his waist behind him as he crashed to the ground.

“Bashi, you cannot see through the trees if you are sitting down,” Hyoi said annoyed, still not breaking his focus on the horizon.

“I don’t need to see, you have lookout. Let me know if you see anything OTHER than Elesea coming down the road.”

“She will be with someone.”

“I have a theory. You want to hear it?”

Hyoi did not respond.

“Good. My theory is that the real reason we’re here, the truth of the matter is, the facts are – you don’t believe in the Architect either. Rather, you are smitten with Elesea. That’s why we’re here. You have a crush.”

“Any feelings that I may or may not have are not impacting my judgement.”

“Hyoi and Elesea, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g,” Bashi said, playing with a pebble in the dirt.

“Aren’t you the least bit curious who she is bringing?”

“A little. But very little. I don’t like it here. Something feels wrong.”

“If you don’t want to wait with me, then leave.”

Bashi laughed. “And leave you by yourself? Who’s going to look after you?” They had been a team longer than many Malacandrians had survived one cycle of living. They knew each other enough to know that neither would ever be alone.

Hyoi pointed off into the distance at a pale glow moving through the valley. “That’s got to be her.”


His orders were specific. Stop the driver of the car before the car made it past the river. He didn’t know why, he didn’t need to. He had been given a specific instruction that he should end the human’s existence. With a smirk Mander mumbled to himself, “Ours is not to reason why…something, something, something.”

He stood on a hilltop across the Susquehanna River from where Hyoi and Bashi were waiting. In Midian he hadn’t seen them hidden behind the trees. Now in Reality they were visible. He was focused on the distant movement in the dark. A lone vehicle cruising along the road as it twisted through the rolling countryside.

He had practiced remaining in Reality for many years. Even still, the nostomonia, the pull to return to Midian grew exponentially the longer he stayed. Still, at times it would reach to the a level of strong distraction.

He shook his head to clear the growing fog. From the corner of his eye he saw what he needed to disguise the elimination of the target as an accident.


Squeeaaak, thump; squeak, thump.

Sue turned off the wipers as they rubbed against the parched windshield. The road was finally dry after leaving Philadelphia ninety minutes ago in the middle of a downpour.

The rain had been just one thing on her list of concerns. It was late, after ten. The defroster had been fighting to keep the windows free of fog the entire drive. She had the seat pushed back to leave room for her seven month baby bump, which meant uncomfortably stretching to reach the steering wheel.

“At least the traffic is fairly light,” she through to herself. Every so often headlights would appear in her rear view mirror, and after a few minutes would pass her in the fast lane. Lights from traffic travelling north on interstate 95 would wink into view briefly before passing by on the other side of the median.

“It’s been a peaceful drive,” she thought, assuring herself. The Delaware radio station that faded in and out was playing a James Taylor song.

She sang along, drumming on the wheel. “I just want to stop (stop) just to thank you baby, I just want to stop (stop) to thank you baby, how sweet it is to be loved by you.”

At this rate, she would be home by midnight.


The truck sped down the highway toward the long bridge, and didn’t show any sign of slowing.

Mander ran down the hill and began to calculate the gyrations necessary to get inside to cab of the tractor trailer.  Matching pace with the tractor trailer in Midian, he looked forward, and estimated where the driver side door would be when he jumped. He focused his energy at a specific space in time that, when opened, would allow him passage across the Veil to where the truck was.

This was something that Mander had been practicing. Few could cross the Veil, even with the help of a Lamina. As far as he knew, he was the only creature that could cross the Veil at will. “Spend enough time with the Tinker and it is incredible what one can learn,” he thought to himself.

Ahead of him, there was a brief blink of light and a ripple in the air. As the truck neared the narrowing of the road, before crossing onto the steel grate transition to the bridge, Mander took two long strides and jumped toward the driver and steering wheel.

The truck driver let out a startled yell. In the small space between his arms and the door there was an abrupt change in the air. A chill sent goose bumps up his arm, and he was knocked sideways across the seat of the truck as Mander struck with full force.

Tires squealed as the truck swerved sideways before Mander could regain control. The side of the truck scraped along the guard rail before righting itself to the center of the two lanes on the bridge.

The driver wore a navy blue button up shirt with “Troy” embroidered above the left pocket. Mander looked at him with an evil grin, displaying his pointed teeth. “Troy is it?? Troy, you should leave.”

Troy attempted a reply, “No way in he-!”

Mander let go of the wheel, reached across, opened the passenger side door, and pushed with enough force to send Troy sailing out of the opening, and over the guard rail. Troy splashed into  the river below. The truck jumped the curb and scrapped along the guard rail again. Mander left the passenger door swinging and slamming back and forth, and regained control of the truck.


Interstate 95 was busier than she’d expected. She passed the rest area that occupied an open space between the two strips of highway. Cars and trucks appeared in the opposite lanes every minute or so. Headlights blinked in and out of the rear view mirror, momentarily blinding her vision. She drove under the sign that read “T. J. Hatem Bridge ½ mile”. A glance into the rear view mirror showed a large car or van alone in the distance. Other than that, she was alone again.

Then, suddenly, the high beams of a tractor trailer in the oncoming traffic blasted light into her eyes. She held her hand up to shade against the glare. The headlights began to swerve and then dropped abruptly.

It took her a moment to comprehend that the tractor and trailer was pointing directly toward her, breaking into the grassy median and dropping into the dip in the middle. Pain stabbed her heart as panic filled her veins.


“Should we head into the valley?”

“No, not yet. We will wait for Elesea to get closer.”

“She is close enough, Hyoi.” Bashi waved his arm, the dark grey sleeve accenting his gesture.

The blurred movement that was Elsea kept speeding up and slowing down, shifting side to side to stay in a particular spot, relative to the transparent vehicle below.

And then she was gone.

“Did she just jumped into Reality!?” Hyoi said with shock.

“If she just crossed… This is going to break so many rules. This is bad. This is really bad.”


Her eyes locked on the truck with shock.

The truck tore through the median, the bumper ripping up grass and dirt, scattering it across the road and into Suzanne’s car. She crushed the pedal and sped forward, hoping to pass by before it crushed her.

Following the clods of green and brown, the nose of the tractor bounced up and out of the ditch. She could read the words “Peterbilt” clearly as everything shifted into an adrenaline induced slow motion.


Elesea saw the truck cross the median and made the next move without consideration. She pulled the coin from a hidden pocket and tossed it in front of her.

Lamina were rare, but this coin had been handed to her, pressed into her hand by a short creature in a dark brown cloak. She’d attempted to follow him, but after turning a few corners, he was impossible to find.

She watched the coin land and focused her jump to place her squarely in the middle of the growing round portal that had torn the air open in front of her.

The jump through the Veil had been timed perfectly. She’d landed inside the passenger seat next to where Sue was frantically trying to avoid being crushed by the oncoming sixty thousand pounds of metal.

Elesea threw her arms around Sue as the tractor smashed into the rear panel of the car. Debris flew everywhere. The sound of tearing metal and crumpling plastic was deafening. The car spun, sliding toward the shoulder and away from the incoming trailer. Finally, it stopped with a jolt when the front end smashed against a guard rail post, setting the horn to a continuous blare.

The truck tires caught on the ground and squealed on the pavement, bringing the tractor to a halt. The sudden stop blew out the tires on the cab and trailer, tipping the load sideways. The diamond shaped warning on the side of the tank read “Extremely Flammable.” It landed on the road. Liquid spewed from gaps torn in the side.

She jumped through the smashed windshield and ran toward the truck as the driver climbed up through the passenger side door, now open to the night sky. The driver lightly sprang to the ground and landed with a splash in the growing pool of liquid on the road.

Her left hand reached across and drew a long dagger sheathed to her side. Her right hand grabbed the hilt of a sword that was strapped to her back.


Sue began to refocus. Muddled, her head pounding with pain and fear, she picked up details, like pictures being flashed before her eyes. The back of her car lying spread across the road. Axles. tires, chunks of mangled frame.

The license plate still attached to the bumper, the bumper rocking back and forth in the fast lane, bumping up against the tanker.

The van that was once in the distance behind her, now rambled slowly through the grassy median to get around the tractor and fuel tank it had been towing.

The cab of the tractor was tipped over. Black fuel gushed from its tank. The liquid flowed across the road, and mixed with the liquid gushing from the belly of the tanker trailer, rushing closer to meet the gasoline that gurgled from the fuel tank of her own car. She noticed the truck driver pop up from door the sideways truck and land on the ground, seeming untouched by the crash.

She couldn’t move. The steering wheel was pressed up tight to her chest. She tried to reach the seat belt, but she couldn’t wriggle her hand between the steering wheel and her pregnant stomach to release it. The door was jammed shut, the handle wouldn’t release.

She looked again to where the driver of the truck had been, but instead of running away, he had stopped. She could see that he was standing still. Cast in shadow, his features were blacked out. Another figure walked slowly away from her and toward him.


Mander’s head shifted to watch the van screech to a stop as the three passenger jumped from inside.

The good Samaritans ran fearlessly toward the car, feet splashing in the fuel that had now covered all three lanes of road and the shoulders beyond.

“Elesea, this is not meant for you,” he said, coldly. He dropped his hand to his side, releasing a small object, and a flame shot up from the pavement. In a flash, exploding fire leapt in all directions at once.


Without hesitation, Hyoi and Bashi exploded into action.

The tanker truck had just veered to the left and crossed into the grass strip between the lanes. Elesea had obviously seen the same and moved into Reality to somehow intervene in the crash.

The partners sprinted down the hill. Bashi’s hand flicked forward and the air shimmered in front of them, allowing them to effortlessly pass through the Veil and into Reality.

“Remind me to ask where you found a Lamina!” Hyoi yelled. Without another word they split up, Hyoi moving to the right toward Elesea, Bashi running toward the car resting at the side of the road.

Hyoi heard a voice speaking to Elesea a brief moment before the entire scene erupted in an explosion of flame. Hyoi had just reached the edge of the road when the driver of the truck jumped backward and vanished. He watched as his friend Elesea seemed to lift briefly into the air and fall again to the pavement. She flared into a brief flicker of bright flame before disintegrating. Hyoi screamed in pain, but there was nothing to be done.

The fire flashed backward and took the tractor trailer in a blinding explosion. It shot under the three passengers of the van, immediately consuming them and continued onto the van where the explosion lifted it into the air and set it back down with a shattering of screeching metal.


The inferno raced across the road toward her.

Sue’s head clearing, she was able to take in several events at once. The driver vanished. The female figure walking toward the driver was consumed in an instant. There was another figure at the edge of the road that seemed taken with surprise and grief as he crouched to protect himself from the heat. The three people from the van had also been taken suddenly in flames. They were writhing on the ground, screaming in pain, their bodies melting into black ash.

Sue struggled again against the seat belt and the handle of the car door. A glimmer of light from the corner of her eye slid between her shoulder and the seat belt and cut it free. A second flash of light sent the car door spinning through the air. After that, she remembered only the blinding glow from an engulfing explosion, and the safety of a cool shadow.


Bashi had arrived at the car to find the woman in the front seat, held fast by the seat belt and pressed tight against the steering wheel, struggling to break free. Without thinking, he drew a short sabre and slashed the belt with a precise stab, never touching the woman.

A surge of heat and sound covered them both. He reached forward and yanked at the door with every bit of strength he could exert.


Hyoi and Bashi stood again on the same hill where they had waited just moments before, but this time in Reality, fighting the effects of the nostomonia. They wouldn’t leave until they were sure that the person that Elesea had been trying to protect would remain safe. They would investigate why later.

Bashi tried to catch his breath. His light blue pants made of loose fitting cloth that tied at the waist and stopped just below the ankle, smoldered at the hem. The shirt was one piece of thin cloth that hung loosely in tatters to just below the waist. The short sleeves were baggy and frayed at the edges with marks of char and dirt stains.

Hyoi’s eyes were filled with tears. He stood, silent.

Bashi looked at him, troubled by the emotion that his stoic friend normally portrayed. “What is it, Hyoi?”

“Elesea,” he whispered softly.

“You know even now, she is beginning again in Malacandra.”

“Bashi.” He paused and took a deep breath to cleanse his thoughts. “Outside of you, she understood me more than any other. We were much closer than friends. She will never be the same that she was.”

“I’m sorry, Hyoi. I didn’t know.”

“I know. I never told you. I felt it was a sign of weakness to… To embrace another. So human. We spend to much time here.”


A black 1970 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight with white walls pulled up at the edge of the flares and cones that blocked the wreckage and the roadway. A stocky man with a receding hairline pushed open the door of the car. His white hair could barely be seen above the roof of the large vehicle.

Wearing faded jeans and a tattered shirt, walked with slow deliberation toward Sue, who sat at the back of an ambulance. He paused to pick a small object, examined it, and then continued to walk across to her. She was leaned forward, her hands around her belly. Her eyes were closed. The stranger was unsure if she was awake or asleep. Reaching her, he leaned in, and spoke into her ear. He reached into the pocket of his jeans and showed her something. From their perch, Bashi couldn’t tell what.

The woman stood. She and the stranger walked back to his car, together.

Hyoi sighed, “She is safe, we can return.”



“I don’t have the Lamina. We can’t get back home.”

Hyoi stood in silence, feeling even weaker than he had a moment ago. “This is why the coins are kept secret. They are dangerous.”

“Where is it?”

“At the edge of the road in the burnt grass. Actually, I think that man with our target just picked it up.” Hyoi didn’t say any more. His face filled with concern.

The man opened the door for Sue. He closed it and turned in a circle, examining the area around them. Then he drew his arm back and threw the Lamina into the trees, directly at Hyoi and Bashi.


After crossing back into Midan, Hyoi and Bashi continued to watch the activity through the veil.

“Bashi, I think that the man that was driving the truck and started the fire, I think that he was one of us. A conculous from Malacandra.”

“You do realize how crazy that sounds, don’t you?”

“Yes, and yet I think I know who it was.”


The newspaper stated that only three people had been killed in that crash and the ensuing explosion. The reporter said in his article that Suzanne had been found after the explosion some distance from the car, and had no signs of being affected, but the area surrounding her on all sides had signs of burning and scattered pieces of charred remains from the car. The remainder of the car that hadn’t been shattered from the original impact was found upside down in the weeds beyond the guard rail, presumed to have landed there after being thrown during the explosion.

A man had shown up shortly after the wreck, clinging to a piece of drift wood. The night watch at a marina on Water Street called an ambulance, and the man was taken to Harford Memorial Hospital. Police reported that he claimed that he was thrown from the tanker truck, from the top of the bridge. Severe bruising, four broken ribs and a broken leg matched the damage that would occur from a fall of that height. He was held for psychiatric evaluation and placed on suicide watch.