March FADness: 03/29/2008: Green; Untitled (387 Words)

Sage Zelyoni thumbed through the huge pile on the table. She looked up, hazel eyes intent. “These are all the same person?”

“We believe so, yes,” Captain Kenning confirmed.

Sage pulled one from the stack gingerly, holding it by the corner. “This one…” she mused. She set it down next to the stack.

Lieutenant Bissel retrieved it, glanced once, and passed it to the Captain.

“Mmm,” Kenning responded. “New York.”

“Sorry?” Sage asked, looking up.

“New York,” he repeated, flipping it around so she could see. “The Norman heist.”

Her eyes widened. “My goodness.”

“So anything you could tell us would help, Miss Zelyozni.”

“Zelyoni,” she corrected. “Mrs.”

Kenning smiled, showing more teeth than usual. “Apologies.”

She thumbed through the stack again. “I’m very sorry, gentlemen. That’s all I can do.”

“Thank you for your time, ma’am,” Kenning drawled.

Sage stood. “Please call if you find anything else.”

“We will,” Kenning agreed, or threatened. It wasn’t clear from his tone.

Sage wound her way through the cluttered precinct, following the Lieutenant. Late afternoon sun shone in the windows and a cacophony of voices, telephones ringing, and printers going all at once threatened to give her a headache.

Lieutenant Bissel glanced back and saw her expression. “It’s loud,” he apologized.

“It’s energetic,” she returned with a shrug.

The remark seemed to please him and he smiled. In the lobby, he handed her a business card. “My name’s William. Call me if you think of anything else.” His fingers brushed hers as she took the card.

She smiled slightly and moved forward, out of the station. Once clear, she turned left and navigated around to the subway entrance a couple blocks away. She deposited the wig and yellowish contacts in the trash. The contacts looked good with her blue eyes, but they itched. Sage disappeared and Esmerelda Verde shook out her heavy mass of black hair. Esmerelda boarded the Green Line headed back into the heart of the art district.

She smirked. The police still knew nothing. Well, they knew the thief Jaguaro was a woman. But fully half the pictures they’d made Sage sit through weren’t even her. Esmerelda smiled. Tonight, she would torch the building housing ‘Sage Zelyoni Gallery’ and stop at the museum.

Before morning, the Russian Jades would be hers.

The subway rattled on, oblivious.

March FADness: 03/28/2008: MIA; “Severed” (364 Words)

Severed

“Janie, you should eat something.”

“Mamma, don’t call me Janie. I’m not five!”

You know that sigh moms get when they’re pulling their patience from somewhere only angels live? Yeah. That’s the sigh she gave me. “Janice, you need to eat.” The serious tone of voice came out.

“I’m not hungry, mamma.”

“I know, baby. I know.”

She smelled good, like freshly baked pie and flowers. The skin on her arms was soft as she held me, but I could feel the age in her bones. My crying didn’t seem to faze her.

“I’m tired, Mamma.”

She laid her head on top of mine. “I know.”

Sounds and lights and color. That’s all I remember. The sounds don’t make any sense in my memory, just a jumble missing any context. Disconnected, like on an amusement park ride. I don’t recall the impact. We were just moving, and then we weren’t. They say your life passes before your eyes when these things happen. ‘These things,’ nice and sanitized. ‘These things happen,’ they say, like that’s supposed to make it okay.

It was Thursday. That much I remembered. Jonie had ballet class and John’s plane arrived early, so I took her with me to pick him up. ‘Triple J,’ John called us, or his ‘J and the Jayettes,’ like we were some kind of rock band. Jonie loved it.

Nine-eleven came and went and life went back to being life. I can’t really say ‘normal,’ because the country changed after that. I changed. Jonie’s only six. She didn’t change, she wasn’t born yet. My baby knows how to say terrorist.

How do you pick up the pieces of your life after that? The ballet practice that will never come. They said, God, that if I wrote it down, You would answer. How? I only lost my left leg. They lost everything. My Jays, and the rest. The truck bomb got fifty-two people in one shot, and they say it was driven by a woman.

Was she missing when she left that day? Did her family look for her, frantic with worry? Or did they console each other, shake their heads, and say, ‘these things happen?’

Picture Prompt 03: Ferret; “Untitled”

I snapped the picture through the car window and sighed. Fourth effing ferret this week! I grabbed the purse through the open window and saw the Lovecraft book. Good Lord. Pseudo-intellectuals are entering the illegal ferret trade? With a pink purse?

I slipped the little guy out of his home, removed the gold pen from his little clawed hands and gave him a popsicle stick to play with instead. I put the purse back and went over to the van.

“Got another one, Luther,” I called.

“Be right out!” he yelled back.

I sighed and got in the front, the ferret in my lap. His tail was flipping back and forth and he pounced on one of the buttons of my jacket.

The radio crackled. “Hey Reece, you on?”

I picked it up and thumbed the talk button. “Yeah, Miller, what’s up?”

“You guys done with the mall yet? I’ve got another call.”

“Hey Luther, you about ready?”

He grunted and I heard a cage door close and latch. “Yeah!” He squeezed his bulk through the door between the cab and the back and got into the driver’s seat. “Oh. You need another cage?” he asked, seeing my burden.

“Yeah, I guess. He’s cute though.”

“Guys?” Miller asked.

“Oh, sorry Miller. Yeah, we’re about done. What do you need?”

“Possible puppy mill about an hour from your location. Local control called us, they don’t have a truck free.”

I met Luther’s shocked gaze and thumbed the radio. “Yeah. Send it to my blackberry; we’ll leave in five.”

“Gotcha.”

Luther reached around for a cat carrier we had behind the seat and I lifted my little friend into it. He clutched the popsicle stick in his paws but wriggled around, sniffing everything. The minute I let him go, he tried to come back out again.

“Oh no, old son, in you go,” I murmured, pushing him back. I latched the door and slid the carrier back against the side of the van where it wouldn’t move around much.

My blackberry vibrated. I pulled it out and looked at the directions. “Just get on the freeway westbound from here,” I told Luther. “Take it for about twenty miles and then a bunch of local streets. This place is kind of hidden.”

Luther started the van with a rumble. One of the cats we had in the back started meowing again, piercing and lonely. I sighed and shut the door to the back.

“Four ferrets and a puppy mill,” Luther sighed, pulling into traffic. “It’s a banner day.”

I dozed against the door until our exit.

“Hey, Reece. We’re here,” Luther woke me.

I rubbed my eyes. “Take a left at the end of the on-ramp.”

I pulled out the blackberry and directed him through the suburban sprawl. We ended up on a lonely road beyond the housing complexes, bounded on one side by a cornfield and the other by a cow pasture with four or five scrawny cows. We saw the rotating red lights up ahead.

“They brought the van for this?” Luther blurted, seeing the big incident-control vehicle beside the road.

I laughed. “Must be nice to have such a quiet neighborhood,” I said and froze. As we pulled past the van, the ambulance started its siren and pulled out in a spray of gravel. “What the hell?”

A big policeman with a budding paunch and no-nonsense expression flagged us to one side and Luther pulled over, rolling his window down. “Luther Foxglove and Reece Martin, Greater Metro Anti-Cruelty,” Luther told him.

The big man studied us. “See some I.D.?”

I pulled mine out and handed it to Luther, who handed both to the policeman. He grunted and handed them back. “I’m Sergeant Black. We’ll need you in a minute,” he said and turned away.

“Sir?” Luther called softly. “How bad is it?”

Black stopped but didn’t turn. “Bad,” he finally snapped, and kept walking.

Luther turned to stare at me and I swallowed. It was a puppy mill! How bad could it be?

We were finally allowed to get out of the van. The birds chirped, delirious with Spring. The breeze touched my hair, bringing a fresh smell of wet earth and growing things. It didn’t help to settle my tension. I grabbed two of the cages and Luther did the same, and we followed the silent Sergeant Black toward the big, white building just off the main road.

The smell started when we were still ten feet from the building. By the time we got to the door, I wanted to go home.

“Hey, Reece?” Luther said to me as we carried the fourth set of cages out of the building.

“Yeah?”

“Next time Miller calls, don’t get it, okay?”

I snorted. “Yeah.”

It took us three more trips to get them all out. Luther and I didn’t speak when we got into the van.

I reached around to the cat carrier and let the little guy out of his cage. He attacked my button again and I opened my jacket. He curled up on my stomach and fell asleep, one paw still holding the popsicle stick.

March FADness: Picture Prompt: 03/27/2008; Untitled (997 Words)

“It’s got me!” Bob howled.

The others laughed. Becca stepped forward and gently pried the little lizard’s teeth off Bob’s finger and deposited it, wriggling, into a specimen pouch.

“That’s the last one,” Professor Parker said. “Let get back to the truck.”

Becca, Bob and Verne all nodded. Linda retrieved the specimens. Bob picked up the food pack and the others got their respective backpacks.

“Good show, guys. This is probably the last trip we’ll take out here before end-of-term,” Parker complimented.

A sharp report startled them. Becca looked toward the trees and saw a flash of color. Someone in a pair of black pants and red t-shirt was just beyond the tree line.

“Get back!” Parker snapped. “Behind the van. Now!”

“Verne!” Linda shouted.

Verne staggered and went to one knee, a crimson stain growing above his belt on the left side.

“Shit,” Parker snapped. “Go! Goddamit, go!” He swept his pack off and caught Verne before he fell. Parker hefted Verne into his arms to run behind the van.

Becca crouched almost under the bumper, shaking with reaction. Parker and Bob, who both knew CPR and first aid, muttered commands back and forth while Bob ripped through the first-aid kit. Parker pulled up Verne’s shirt to reveal a surprisingly small hole. There was a lot of blood. Becca swallowed hard and blinked away tears.

“This is Linda Kincaid.”

Becca jumped, eyes flying to Linda’s face. Her black hair was swept back behind her ears and she held a mobile to her ear with one hand, white from tension.

“I am a senior at Forest University. We’re on a field trip with Professor James Parker. One of our students has been shot.” She listened, nodding, and answered several rapid-fire questions. She hung up and looked at Parker. “They can get a helicopter to us in about ten minutes, there’s one at the Ranger Station for Search and Rescue. They’ll have police with them.”

Another loud gunshot made them all jump.

“Do we need to move?” Becca demanded, voice higher than usual.

Parker and Bob stared at each other. Bob shrugged. “I don’t know, Professor. If they move out of the trees, we’re sitting ducks.”

Parker leaned down and peeked under the van at the woods. “I can’t… wait. I see one of them now. Red t-shirt.”

“I saw him before,” Becca told him.

Parker glanced at her. “Do you know if he’s the one shooting?”

She stared at him, heart pounding. “I don’t know. I just saw a flash of color…”

Parker’s eyes softened. “Becca, it’s okay,” he said gently. “Bob was in the military, and I used to be an Army medic. We’re used to this. I don’t expect you to know what you’re doing.”

“Is Verne going to be okay?” she asked, voice hoarse.

Parker looked down at Verne, who had passed out against Bob’s legs. “I think so. It’s a clean wound and missed anything vital.”

A ‘fump, fump’ sound intruded on Becca’s attention and she looked around wildly.

“It’s the helicopter, Bec,” Linda said softly. “Look.” She pointed behind them to a brown and green helicopter sweeping up the valley, low to the trees. It came on, incredibly fast, and zoomed over to swing in a tight circle around their van and the trees where the red-shirted man hid.

“This is the California State Police,” a man’s voice boomed from the helicopter. “Place your weapons on the ground and lace your hands overhead.”

A sharp gunshot sounded from the trees, muffled by the noise of the helicopter. A bass boom responded and wood splintered. Becca screamed.

“This is the only warning you will receive,” the voice intoned. “Weapons down, now!”

There was a pregnant pause, filled by the steady ‘fump, fump’ of the helicopter blades.

“Look!” Bob hissed, pointing.

The man in the red t-shirt stumbled out from between two pines, fingers laced on top of his head. He kneeled down about ten feet in front of the trees in clear sight of the helicopter. After several moments, two others came out, both in blue jeans and white t-shirts. One was limping.

The helicopter appeared to step backward and then dropped to land, surprisingly gently, on the open ground between the men and their van. Becca’s hands tingled and she felt a rushing in her head from adrenaline.

Two well-muscled men in orange coveralls raced over to them, a stretcher held between them. They skidded to a stop next to Verne and bundled him onto it, strapping him in. Bob identified himself and ran in a crouch back to the helicopter with the two men.

After several more minutes passed, one of the taller policemen made his way over to them. He grinned widely when he saw the Professor.

“Jimmy!” he boomed. Becca recognized the voice from the helicopter.

“Trevor?” Parker echoed in surprise. “What the hell are you doing all the way up here? I thought you were at Yosemite!”

“I was. Got transferred this week, haven’t had time to call you.” His face darkened and he glanced back at the men being handcuffed. “What the hell happened?”

“I have no idea,” Parker answered. “We’re doing our last collection for the term. They just started shooting. We have no idea who they are.”

Trevor looked back, eyebrows raised. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, why?”

Trevor chuckled. “We’ve been trying to find these guys for two months. Run a drug ring up here. Looks like a deal went bad. You’re likely to get a reward, they’re wanted real bad.”

Parker looked startled. “You’re kidding!”

“Nope,” Trevor answered. “Good job, all of you.”

Linda smiled weakly. “Hey Professor. Is this gonna be on the final?”

They all laughed, some of the tension easing. Becca got into the van gratefully, looking forward to going back to school and to see how Verne was doing. She watched the helicopter lift off, Verne hidden inside. It swept from sight, the wind of its passage blowing the branches around wildly.

March FADness: 03/26/2008: Click Clack Moo; “Farmer Brown’s Secret” (551 Words)

Farmer Brown’s Secret

The big man with the fluffy white hair shook his head, mane bouncing. “I don’t know how you do it, Farmer Brown.”

Farmer Brett Brown shrugged, and smiled at Bessie. “I don’t either, Mr. Vice President. But our lady cows have the latest in technology.”

Mr. Vice President, who Bessie knew was called Dick Cheney, laughed. “Technology can solve many problems! What are you using?”

“Moocrosoft Barn Door, sir. Hot off the press. It’s a lot better than Moocrosoft Pasture. Pasture was too slow and prone to weeds.”

One of the men in black suits stepped up to Mr. Vice President and whispered something. “Yes, Charlie. Thank you,” Mr. Vice President said. He turned to Farmer Brown. “What about the Democratic National Committee? They’re not going to sit still while we create a grass-roots campaign you know.”

Farmer Brown smirked. “We’ve got that under control, sir. Let me introduce you to the Republicans’ latest ally.” He turned and led the way out of the barn.

Bessie stepped through her gate to the outside paddock and walked along beside the two men, the knot of men in black suits hanging back a bit. They walked down the dirt road and stopped at a small wooden building with wire mesh over its windows.

“This is the latest. My son Bobby thought it up, sir. It’s called Project Foxtrot.”

Mr. Vice President bent and squinted through the window. All of a sudden he shouted and jumped back. The men in black suits came running up, guns drawn, and Mr. Vice President waved them off. “It’s all right, boys. It’s all right. False alarm!”

They stumbled to a stop, appearing to Bessie to be faintly disappointed. Farmer Brown bent and coo’d at the occupant of the enclosure. He looked up at Mr. Vice President. “Her name is Hillary. Isn’t she great, sir?”

“She’s … um,” Mr. Vice President hedged.

Farmer Brown straightened, eyes understanding. “You don’t see it yet, sir. She’s a fox. The best one in the county. Steals more chickens than any four foxes you ever saw.”

Mr. Vice President’s eyebrows came up, impressed. “You don’t say!”

“She’s perfect. Mr. Dean has filled the Democratic National Committee with what he thinks is the latest competition to our girls.” Farmer Brown grinned and winked at Bessie. She winked back. He stared a little and then turned back to Mr. Vice President. “You see, sir, they got a shipment from Germany, sir. But their girls aren’t nearly as good as mine, see. Apples to oranges, you ask me.”

“Farmer Brown, I don’t follow you,” Mr. Vice President admitted.

“Chickens, Mr. Vice President. They’ve hired German chickens to handle their national policy!” He chortled gleefully. “We’ll have ‘em snowed under in no time! My girls are faster any day, and twice on Sunday!”

“Faster?” Mr. Vice President wondered.

Farmer Brown beamed at him. “Yes, sir! They only use the hunt and peck method, see.”

Mr. Vice President’s eyes widened, and he glanced down at Hillary. “You don’t say,” he murmured.

“So,” Farmer Brown started. “What do you say to some of Mrs. Brown’s famous cherry pie?”

Bessie watched the two men, followed by the hoard of men in black suits, wander slowly back up to the farmhouse.

“Okay, girls,” she said. “Let’s get back to work!”

March FADness: 03/25/2008: Postman; “The Letter” (737 Words)

The Letter

“Did you see this?” Martin asked.

“See what?” Sal responded, not looking up from his laptop.

“This letter,” Martin answered in a sing-song voice, flapping it back and forth in the air.

“Dude. I’m under deadline!” Sal snapped.

“Fine, fine,” Martin said airily, not surprised at Sal’s waspishness. “Princess.”

Sal snorted.

Martin walked into the kitchen. “I’m gonna start dinner, okay babe?” he called back.

“Whatever. Yeah. Sounds fine,” Sal agreed absently.

“I’m going to cook your cat,” Martin added.

“Yeah, okay, whatever,” Sal muttered.

Martin smiled to himself and sat down at the kitchen table. He used the letter opener to slit the heavy paper and slid the letter out.

Dear Mr. Martin McAllister,

Schwartz, Greene, McAllister and Stone wishes to inform you that your Uncle Harrison McAllister named you in his will, executed 5th March 2008 in New York City. A sum has been placed on hold for you at the Bank of New York in the numbered account, #—79Zyy48, with the enclosed password.

Please respond soonest as to when you can stop by our offices to collect your Uncle’s remaining possessions.

Kind regards,

Mr. Johnstone Bartholomew Greene

Martin sat back in his chair feeling like he’d been punched. He had an uncle in New York? He glanced at the paper again. An Uncle who was a lawyer? Who’d left him money?

He set the paper on the table and started dinner, lost in thought. Sal wandered in a little later and picked it up to read. “Hmm. We could go this weekend,” he said thoughtfully.

Martin turned around, stirring the stew one-handed. “Go where?”

“New York,” Sal said like it was obvious. “When will dinner be ready?”

“Sal, are you serious? We can’t just go to New York!”

Sal cocked his head. “Why not? It’s only an hour or two to drive.”

“I know how long it takes,” Martin snapped, exasperated.

Sal shrugged. “There you go then.” He pulled a diet soda out of the fridge and went back to his computer, muttering about his work.

Sal wouldn’t discuss the trip any more that night, or the next two days. He just booked them a hotel in Manhattan and told Martin he would do most of the driving since Sal was under deadline.

Saturday morning, Sal got up like nothing was out of the ordinary and got packed.

“Sal. You don’t think this is the least bit odd?” Martin demanded, stuffing some underwear in his overnight bag.

Sal shrugged. “Nope.” He grabbed Martin’s toiletry kit and headed out to the car.

They didn’t talk much on the drive. Sal was buried in his laptop almost the entire way there. Martin pulled into the Valet line at the hotel and stopped. Sal looked up, smiled, and stowed his computer.

“Let’s go, hun,” Sal chirped and got out of the car before Martin could say anything.

Sal checked them in while Martin got the car and luggage taken care of. Rather than having a Bellman take their bags, Sal navigated the cart himself. Martin followed, increasingly grumpy. The elevator opened and Martin froze.

The elevator opened onto a huge private suite. French doors stood about six feet in front of the elevator, opening onto a spacious bedroom. Smack in the center of it stood an enormous king-size bed, with what were obviously silk sheets adorning it and more pillows than the Sultan. Hanging like bunting from the doors was the sign: Schwartz, Greene, McAllister and Stone welcome you to New York.

“Happy birthday, baby,” Sal murmured into Martin’s ear, sending chills up and down his spine. He walked past Martin into the bedroom and maneuvered the cart to one side.

Martin, dumbstruck, got out of the elevator when it started beeping shrilly. The doors shut behind him and he heard it rumble back downstairs.

“Sal?”

“Hmm?” Sal rumbled over his shoulder as he rummaged in his bag.

“Sal, what is going on?”

Sal turned and came over to Martin, circling him in his arms. “I just figured you needed some mystery in your life. You are turning forty, and you were moping about it.”

Martin felt himself grin. “So there’s no creepy lawyers, no uncle to go see?”

Sal bent forward. “None at all. No reason to leave the suite. They have,” he brushed his lips against Martin’s, “room service…” He captured Martin’s mouth with his and Martin responded, happier than he’d been in days.

March FADness: 03/24/2008: First Line, “Sirens” (999 Words)

Sirens

Nick had considered himself a lucky guy, until now. He pressed his hand against his partner’s throat, blood pooling up around his fingers in a warm flood.

“Come on, Sally, hang on, dammit!” He thumbed his radio again. “Sampson, hurry up! I’m gonna lose her!”

“We’re en route!” Sampson’s voice snapped back, the siren sharp in the background. “Just keep pressure on it!”

Nick heard the gurney wheels before he saw the two EMT’s barreling down the gangway. He recognized Pat Mallek in the front, but couldn’t see the second one.

“Hey, Nick,” Pat greeted absently, kneeling by Sally. He moved Nick’s hands, his own gloved ones cool against Nick’s sweaty skin. Nick sat back on his heels.

“Hi, Pat. Thanks for coming.”

“This is my partner, Luiz,” Pat said, nodding sideways, his attention on Sally.

Luiz handed Nick a wet-nap that he used to get the blood off his hands.

“How are things here?” Luiz asked softly, handing things to Pat as he asked for them.

“Tense. Two shooters down, but we’ve still got at least one inside. I can’t tell how many hostages.”

“When’s the Negotiator get here?” Pat asked, proving he’d been paying attention.

“Stuck in traffic on the 80,” Nick muttered.

All three of them ducked. Nick heard the sharp whine of a bullet whizz overhead and frowned. “Get clear, guys. Now.”

“Yup,” Pat snapped, glanced once at Luiz, and then both EMT’s ran in a crouch up the gangway, Sally bouncing a little on the gurney.

Nick drew his backup piece out of his calf holster and crept forward. He pressed himself against the building and peeked. The house across the street glowed an unhealthy orange in the sulfur-colored streetlights. Three storeys tall, the shooters had been using the first floor. No one was sure if the rest of the building was vacant or not. That uncertainty kept the police pinned down.

“Any word on that Negotiator?” Nick asked into his radio, scanning the street for movement.

“No. Nick, you clear?” Nick recognized the voice of Captain Joiner, the ranking officer on the scene.

Nick frowned, tucking himself back into his corner. “No.”

“Well, get clear, God dammit! Why aren’t you in the ambulance?”

“Because I wasn’t shot, Joiner. Keep your shirt on.”

“Do not engage,” Joiner shot back.

Nick didn’t answer. He saw a flash of white moving across the street and concentrated. He thumbed his radio off so a stray bit of sound didn’t give him away. He saw the white again.

It was a teenaged boy. Latino, about sixteen, black hair cut short. He wore a white t-shirt and jeans, no shoes. His nose and one ear were bloody.

Nick thumbed his radio. “I think we have one hostage coming out, South side of the building. Latino male, teenager about sixteen, appears to be injured. Barefoot, heading toward Position Three.”

“We got him,” a different voice answered. Nick recognized Bart Jenkowiac, one of the guys from his own precinct. They’d called in everybody on this one.

Nick saw another person come out of the shadows at the same spot the boy had. This time is was an older woman, graying hair caught up in a bun that was coming out in whisps all over her face.

“Second hostage, same location. Woman, approximate age mid-fifties, navy dress.”

“Got it,” Bart confirmed.

A gunshot sounded from inside the building and Nick saw the flash against the window opposite his position. A body fell half-in, half-out of the balcony door.

“Hello?” a voice called.

“Hold your position, this is the Metro Police,” Nick shouted. “You are covered on four sides. Do not approach with a weapon or you will be shot.”

After a moment, the voice responded. “Okay.”

Nick sighed. Of all the days for traffic… “Do you have a weapon?” he shouted.

“Yes. But I’m not one of them!” the voice shouted. Nick hazarded a guess that the speaker was around twenty, male, and of Latin ancestry based on the slight accent.

“Are any of them still alive?” Nick called.

“I think so, but they’re not awake. My brother and I took care of them. Is my mom okay?”

Nick glanced down the street but couldn’t see the woman. “Yeah!”

“I’m coming out!” he called.

“Slowly!” Nick yelled.

A man in his mid-twenties approached the sliding door and stopped, blinking out at the night. “Are you there?” he called.

“Hands laced on your head. Now!” Nick shouted, aiming center-mass.

The man did it, moving like his left arm pained him. He stepped onto the balcony, still not able to see Nick. “It’s just me and my brother in here,” he said. “The other three are down.”

Three? Nick swallowed. This was looking less and less like a domestic problem and more like a deal gone bad.

“Tell your brother that he should lay on the floor, hands on his head,” Nick instructed. “Officers are going to come in and I don’t want there to be any mistakes.”

He nodded a little wildly. “You want me on the floor too?”

Nick shook his head. “No. I want you right where I can see you.” He paused. “What’s your name?”

“Tomás,” came the answer.

“I’m Nick, Tomás. Are there any other injuries inside?”

“I don’t know,” Tomas answered. “These guys just broke in and started shooting, I don’t know why or if there were any others.”

Nick nodded. He could hear the door splinter from behind Tomás and knew the police finally had it under control.

When they brought Tomás out of the building, Nick came over to the ambulance. “You were very brave today, son,” he said.

“Thank you, sir. I just want to see my mom and little brother.”

Nick nodded. He moved away and pulled his own keys out of his pocket. It could have gone a lot worse tonight. Maybe his luck was turning. He just hoped Sally would be okay. He hit the siren and headed for the hospital, praying.

March FADness: 03/23/2008: Beauty; “Dear Dad” (717 Words)

Dear Dad

It’s been thirty-five years since I married her. I know every freckle on her face. They’re like stars, these freckles, you should see them. They’re not white, like stars are, but they’re just as thick as the Milky Way, especially across her nose. Her nose is tiny, sort of pointy, and when she’s tense she gets pimples around the sides of it. (Don’t tell her I said that, she’ll kill me.)

Jana is still the only woman for me. I’m so lucky. She’s upset, though. Her hair is going gray. She went to the Aveda Institute last week and they did a great job. It’s kind of chocolatey now, darker than it was but just as gorgeous. It’s really natural-looking. How they do that, I have no idea. They use all botanical products, so maybe that’s the secret. Nature in a bottle, who knew? It’s longer than it was, too, nearly down her back. It’s really soft. I’m not supposed to tell anyone she had it dyed. Mikey loves to play with it. He’s got a good, strong grip too – you should see her grimace when he grabs hold and yanks! He’s only two but he’s got a hold like a wrestler.

Jenny is already ten – God, can you believe it? She’s gonna be a looker, Dad. What am I going to do? Was it like this with my sisters? I feel like I’ll kill any of these snot-nosed little punks that look at her funny. She just rolls her eyes and says, “Come on, Dad.” I never talked back like that, did I? She’s not into “boys” (she sneers it). She is into horses. Holy cow, I never knew they had so many horse posters! They’re plastered everywhere. I honestly think she’d put them in our room, the boys’ rooms, the kitchen, even the garage. I mean, how many pictures do you need? A horse is a horse. (Don’t say it.)

And Bobby. The middle child. He looks like the oldest! Good Lord, what a pistol! He’s going to be like you, someday, you just wait. He’s already a star on Little League. He’s got me coaching his team now, did Jana tell you? What the hell do I know about baseball? The other coaches help me out but these kids are brutal. They’re worse than guys in a bar! And the parents! They fight about every little thing. “My kid this. My kid that.” It’s enough to make me want to knock their heads together. And that’s just the women! (Don’t tell Jana I said that either.)

I painted the house. We picked the colors together, as a family. It looks good. I didn’t let them pick anything like the gingerbread man’s house, it’s pretty sedate. Kind of a slate gray, with a slate blue on the shutters and stuff. The windows were a pain. They make a new kind of tape, though, that’s easier to take off. Masking wasn’t such a hassle the way it was when you and I did Grandma’s place last summer.

I don’t know what else to tell you.

Jeez, Dad. I really wish I could give you your sight back. Damn the Army. That shrapnel should have been stopped by the armor on your Humvee, but the Army just couldn’t spend the money. You’ll never get to see them the way I do. Captain Wilkins came over yesterday to talk to us and bring cookies the wives made. I wanted to throw them out after he left but Jana wouldn’t let me. Says I’m bitter. I’m not, I’m just pissed off.

But that’s okay, Dad. That’s okay. You just get better. The hospital will help you best they can. I’ll describe them to you, and anything else you want to look at. I love you, Dad. Come home soon, we miss you. I’ll come over and paint your room with a “textured” paint they have now. It’s weird, but cool. You’ll love it.

Jana and the kids and I will come over this weekend, okay, Dad? We’ll bring you some good food. The VA still can’t make food worth a damn. Some things don’t change, huh? But we’ll be there, and Mom too. I’ll pick her up on the way. Just get well, okay?

Happy Easter,

Your son,

John

March FADness: 03/22/2008: Inheritance; Untitled (998 Words)

Sasha waited outside the County Courthouse building. The session ended twenty minutes ago, but everyone was still inside. He scrubbed a shaking hand across his face, trying to remain calm. The sheen of sweat smeared across his cheeks and stung his eyes. He blinked furiously, trying not to tear up.

His uncle Nikolai was the first out of the door, followed by his lawyer, Mr. Jenkins. Sasha shrank back. He needed to know the outcome, though he had little doubt.

“Get the car,” Nikolai snapped at the lawyer.

“Kolya,” Mr. Jenkins admonished softly. “A continuance isn’t a bad thing, necessarily.”

Nikolai whirled on the black-suited man, face beet red. “If Alexander Mikhailovich succeeds in his suit, there will be nothing. Nothing, do you hear?”

“I know, I know,” Jenkins mollified. “Just calm down. I’ll get the car. Don’t excite yourself.”

Nikolai turned away angrily and Jenkins spoke quietly into a cell phone.

Sasha moved back into the shadows, shaking. A continuance. A continuance! He couldn’t believe it. Silent tears slid almost unnoticed down his cheeks. He did turn toward the bushes, in case anyone was near enough to see.

“See, Father? Maybe it will work,” he whispered. He heard a car door slam and looked over his shoulder.

Nikolai and Mr. Jenkins were getting into a black sedan, the driver a large Black man that Sasha had never seen before. He watched them drive away, still shaking.

It took another fifteen minutes to be able to stop.

He made his way, finally, back to his car. It sat, forlorn among the Mercedes and Porches. He got in, feeling small and insignificant, and dug his mobile phone out of the glove box.

“Celia,” he whispered.

“Sasha?” His girlfriend sounded startled. “Already?” She paused. “Did it go… badly?”

“Continuance.” He managed to spit it out. “Continuance,” he said again, just to hear it. “I heard Uncle talking outside the courthouse.”

“Oh, Sasha! That’s good news!”

“I don’t know when it’s for, though,” Sasha whispered. “Celia, what if…” He couldn’t say it.

“I’ll call. Just give me a moment. I’ll call you back.”

He nodded, then realized she couldn’t hear it. “Okay.” His voice was hoarse.

They hung up. Sasha started the car and threw it into gear. He pulled onto the main drag, tension flowing through his body like poison. He cleared his throat, trying to think. He’d go back to his apartment and… He didn’t know what next.

He pulled into his parking spot and got out. He locked the door and looked around, by reflex checking for anything out of the ordinary. He didn’t live in a very good part of town, but it was all he could afford right now. His father hadn’t liked it, but Sasha had insisted. He wanted to make his own way in the world. He wanted to make it on his own. He hadn’t expected his father to die so soon…

Sudden tears choked him and he blinked furiously. He shouldn’t think about his father. He didn’t see anything out of the ordinary and walked over to the gate in front of the door to the apartment. His keys rattled against the metal and then he was inside.

He was inside the apartment, the door locked and bolted, before Celia called back. “Celia?”

“Sasha.” She didn’t sound very good.

“What’s wrong?”

“I… don’t know what to say, Sasha.”

“Just tell me!”

“It’s not a Continuance on the inheritance. They decided already. It’s a Continuance on the payout schedule. The Court wants time to decide whether it should be a lump-sum or a series of payments.”

Sasha fell onto the couch, feeling punched. “What?”

“I’m so sorry, Sasha!”

“It’s okay, Celia,” he murmured. The phone fell from his ear, and he thumbed it off. “It’s okay.” He put the phone on the coffee table, shaking again.

He wanted to pace the floor but couldn’t get up. How had it happened? His uncle had appeared out of nowhere, claiming that his father’s fortune was his. He claimed that Sasha’s grandfather had gifted both sons equally, and that meant that he was the heir before Sasha. Sasha couldn’t afford a lawyer and his uncle’s challenge had gone before the Judge, and now…

“Papa,” he whispered. “Why did you leave me now?” Sasha wished he could figure out what to do, but emotions clouded his thoughts and he slid to the floor, his back against the couch. His eyes fell on the phone.

Maybe…

His fingers were dialing before he could stop himself. It started ringing and his heart began to pound.

“Allo,” the voice answered, heavily Russian.

“Mozhno govorit na Dyedushku,” he said, translating in his head: may I speak to the Grandfather. ‘Forgive me, Papa,’ he added in his head.

There was silence on the other end of the line for a moment. “Who is this?” a new voice demanded.

“Alexander Mikhailovich,” he responded as firmly as he could manage.

“Sasha,” the voice purred. “What can I do for you?”

“I…” Sasha faltered, then swallowed. “I was calling because my Uncle’s challenge succeeded in court today.”

“I see,” the Grandfather said softly. “And you come to me. Your father would not approve, Sashka.”

Sasha flushed. He hated that the Grandfather added the diminutive to his name, like he was a little boy. He kept his temper in check. “Please. I need your help. I can’t challenge it.”

“And what can I do, Sashka?”

“Can you help?”

“Yes.”

The Grandfather said nothing further. “What do you want?” Sasha asked, fearing the answer.

“Semyon will be by to pick you up in fifteen minutes, and we will discuss it, Sashka. Be ready.”

Sasha swallowed, second thoughts flooding him. “I’ll be ready,” he said bravely.

The Grandfather laughed. “You’d better be.” He hung up.

Sasha sat, trembling painfully, unable to move for a long time. He checked his watch and, five minutes before Semyon was to be downstairs, he pulled himself to his feet and started downstairs.

March FADness: 03/21/2008: Deadzone; “The Rescue” (684 Words)

The Rescue

“Stay behind me,” Fernando snapped. He caught Adana’s wrist. “It’s not safe here.”

Her eyes flew to his face and she stepped back obediently. “But it’s empty,” she protested softly.

He glanced down at her. “No, mija. It’s not.”

She paled and fell silent. He smiled at her and turned back to the stairs. The door at the top stood closed. He felt the hairs raise on the back of his neck and swallowed. He started up.

Light gleamed from under the door and he put a hand out to slow Adana. “Careful now.”

He could feel her tremble against his arm and wished he could spare her the fear, but they had no choice. The only way to get out was past the so-called ‘soldiers’ upstairs. He cursed her father and brothers, who let her be taken. Now they were dead, killed in the endless street violence.

The door was locked, but he’d come prepared. It had been twenty years since he’d used the skills of a thief, but his fingers remembered the picks like they had never left them behind for a legal life. After a few moments of probing, the lock clicked softly. He opened the door slowly, just a crack, so he could see out.

The kitchen on the other side of the door was harshly lit by a single bulb in the ceiling, its cover long-since broken and forgotten. Dishes stacked in the sink gave off a sour smell, matched by the trash can overflowing in the corner. He heard the television on the other room and the sounds of a football game. Denver vs. Miami. He briefly wondered at the score and nearly laughed at himself.

He slipped out of the doorway, Adana a silent shadow at his back. “Out the back door, quickly. Run straight to the woods. You can find your way from there, right?” he whispered.

She nodded. She looked out the door and then back at him. “You’ll be okay?”

He smiled. “Of course I will. Just go. I’ll be along.”

She nodded and padded over to the door. It was unlocked and she slipped out. He watched her run straight into the woods, her hair streaming behind her in a black curtain. He smiled to himself.

“Hey!” The shout startled him, made him turn.

“Hello, Ricardo,” he purred.

Ricardo blinked. “Fernando?”

“I told you I’d be back to get Adana. You never should have started taking girls, you know. Drugs, fine. I don’t care if you poison yourselves. But you take the daughters of my people and I’ll kill you.”

Ricardo laughed. “Right. You can’t kill anyone, old man. You’re legit now, haven’t fought in twenty years.”

Fernando flipped a knife in an underhanded throw and it thunked with a satisfyingly solid sound into Ricardo’s stomach. Ricardo stumbled and fell to one knee.

Behind him, the others raced into the kitchen and saw Fernando. Paulito was the first through the door, the knife in his hand as long as Fernando’s arm. He dodged a sideways swipe and smashed his fist into Paulito’s face. The younger man crashed into the wall and slid down it, unconscious.

Fernando turned toward the last attacker, a newer member of their gang. He knew the boy’s name was Juan, but that was about it. He’d come from New York and was reputed to be a strong knife fighter.

Fernando felt something impact his stomach and stumbled backward. The sound of the pistol-shot deafened him. Juan fired twice more, the gun jumping in his hand. The look on his face was part horror and part surprise.

“You’ve never killed anyone before, have you?” Fernando sneered as he fell to his knees.

The boy stumbled backwards, dropping the gun. “I…” He trailed off.

Fernando fell onto his stomach, his hands not working to stop him. He landed with his face to one side, staring at the door.

At least Adana had gotten out safely. Fernando felt himself grow cold and the room dimmed. He heard others moving into the room behind him, and someone swore. Then his vision went black.

This story continues, here.