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.

FFC Story for 03/21/2008, Spring: “Spring” (997 Words)

This story is my entry for the Spring Theme Carnival. The theme is “Spring.” I hope you enjoy!

Spring

Winter stayed late the year Tia Maria died, as though the mountains themselves mourned her passing, and the wind and sky also. They say she died without an heir and that the People will suffer, but I don’t believe them. I know better. Little Ana was born that frozen night when Tia Maria breathed her last. She came into this world as the old woman left it. My daughter Ana had an easy birth, I’m told by the other women, but I have nothing to compare it to. Ana was my first birth, and she was stillborn.

They say it was meant to be, but I don’t believe them. God, Dios, is not that capricious. No, it was just a twist of fate that killed my daughter, and I intend to twist it back.

The sun crested the ridgeline as I walked into the valley where the old temple stood. We’ve managed to keep it secret from the Whites, the Gringos with their archaeology and desecration, but the elders say it is only a mater of time. I don’t care. It was enough that for now, I was alone. The temple stood, a silent sentry, its stones moldering into history. Grass and other plants made their home on it, covering it so that it seemed to be nothing more than a mound.

I stepped onto the first stair, and the hair on my arms stirred. There was power there, ancient and restless and, some of it, evil. I wasn’t interested in the evil, just the power. The power to talk to God. If the Priests wouldn’t talk to Him for me, so be it; I’d do it myself. I climbed the temple to the top, my lungs aching and my knees complaining. It wasn’t very large, our temple, hardly half the height of places like Teotihuacan. No one knew if that’s because the valley floor had risen, or this temple was just a smaller one, once part of a network across all of the land the ancients controlled.

The top appeared, the sun now up over the mountains. It shone down, oblivious to the long, long winter that held us in its grasp. I smoothed a spot on the top of the temple, the cloth I’d brought bright against the earth. I laid out the corn cakes, the bit of cheese, and water. Lastly, I pulled out my knife. It’s a good, strong blade. My husband, Jose, bought it for me last year. He would not have agreed with me bringing it here, a good cooking knife, but I had nothing else. I kneeled on the cloth and called out to God.

I drew the blade across my hand. It didn’t hurt right away, so I looked to make sure I broke the skin. As soon as I saw the first drops of blood well up, it stung. I flung them forward, over the side of the temple. They sparkled a little in the sun. I cut my other hand and let the knife fall to the ground next to me, the blood on it seeping into the dirt.

I started to feel dizzy, so I bent to lay my forehead on the blanket, bowing to the sun. As my hands fell to the ground, they slipped off the cloth into the dirt, my blood mingling with the earth. My heartbeat seemed to get louder as I prayed.

I heard my name called. I blinked. My hands bled faster, as though the earth pulled the blood like water out of my body. I couldn’t raise my head.

Jose scrambled up behind me and stumbled to a stop. I think he thought I was dead, but I couldn’t speak to him. There were others with him, I could hear their voices, but they didn’t make sense to me.

“Lourdes?” Jose called to me. He fell to his knees next to me and touched my back, his hands sweaty from climbing. “Can you hear me?”

“She is praying,” one of the Priests, a young man called Juanito, told him. “She has brought all the tools.” His voice sounded approving.

“The knife!” Jose cried. “What has she done?”

“It’s her hands, Jose. Not her wrists. This is not for death, but life.” Juanito knelt nearby, I could hear his robes moving. “It may yet work…”

Jose ignored him and brushed my hair out of my eyes. He pulled me over onto my side to lay against him and then slipped his arms around me, lifting me off the blanket.

“Paco. Get her things, please?” Jose called.

His brother, taller than Jose by several inches and strongly muscled, collected my knife, the food offering and then the blanket.

“Jose,” Paco called softly. “Look.”

Jose caught his breath and crushed me to him. “Lourdes!”

“Jose?” My voice sounded weak. I couldn’t see what he was looking at. I tried to crane my neck, but he held me too tightly.

“Take her back,” Juanito told him quietly. “She’ll be very weak.”

Jose didn’t answer right away. “Lourdes?”

I didn’t have the energy to answer him. The sun seemed brighter, burning down onto my skin like something tangible. Jose turned, casting most of my body into the shadow of his body, and started down. The sun warmed my face, its light making my eyes squeeze shut.

“Lourdes, look,” Jose whispered, squeezing me.

I managed to get my eyes open. We were at the base of the temple now, near the burial grounds. Ana’s grave lay closest to us, since it was the newest.

There, on the newly-turned earth of my daughter’s final resting place, we saw it.

“Spring has come!” Jose cried, his tears dripping onto my face. “You are the new Tia, Lourdes!”

Ana’s grave, barren since we laid her to rest, was covered in a soft ripple of green. The first blooms, small white and lavender flowers, opened their shy faces and turned to worship the sun.

God had given His answer.

March FADness: 03/20/2008: Judas Kiss; Untitled (996 Words)

Phylar looked back at the slumbering form in the bed. Jonesh curled around the pillows, her long black curls askew across the sheets. Phylar slipped the keys from the table and shrugged into his robe. He took one final look around at the chamber he’d spent the last four years living in, and shut the door.

He ran down the hallway. This was the only danger: that some guard, zealous and careful, would be prowling the halls of the King’s section of the castle, intent on finding a stray servant. Phylar couldn’t be found. He streaked past the stairs that led down to the receiving rooms and on toward the kitchens. Luck was with him; no one was about.

The second stairs were dark. He knew them by touch, padding down each one carefully lest he slip on the slick stone. He opened the door to the covered walkway, the wooden pillars dark and the carvings shadowed. He scanned the nearby rooftops, but no sentries yet walked. It was another half-hour til crow’s call, and he’d timed his escape perfectly.

He sped down the walkway, still shoeless, his sandals held by the laces in one hand. He reached the bottom and paused. The courtyard radiated light from the moon, silver and bright. The inlaid pattern in the stone seemed shadowed, ominous. He bent and slipped the sandals over his feet, lacing them with sure movements. The postern gate was ahead of him, shadowed by the tall hedge. He heard the snort of a horse, outside.

Phylar streaked across the courtyard, his heart pounding. He pulled the keys out of his pocket, found the right one, and unlocked the gate.

“Phylar. You’re late,” the gruff voice greeted him.

“Only by a little, Captain Lorgin. Better that than discovered.”

“Is all in readiness?”

“Yes,” Phylar confirmed. “I left her sleeping in the chamber; the King is unattended.”

Lorgin regarded him with a black eye, his eyebrow ridge shadowing his gaze and making it sinister, threatening. “You betray your lover so easily, then?”

Lorgin flushed. “She’s not my lover. I was captured, I’m a slave like you.”

Lorgin grunted, but didn’t correct him. He didn’t have to, Phylar heard it anyway. He knew what the conscript soldiers thought of him, a too-pretty boy with the eye of the King’s daughter. “Just stay out of the way, Boy,” Lorgin grunted.

Phylar moved to the side, intimidated despite his brave talk. The soldiers were all large men, clad in rough boiled leather and bearing knives and short swords. Only Lorgin had a mount, but one of the lower-ranking soldiers came to take it away. Lorgin nodded to the men behind him and disappeared through the gate. Phylar counted thirty men with him and felt his stomach clench with fear. Despite what he said… He looked up at the windows of the castle, high above where he stood.

He was a slave. Nothing more. He turned away, to run to the village and hide, but something made him stop. A flash of light flared behind him and he turned. A bunting, bright and woven of beautiful lambswool, waved forlornly as it was consumed by fire.

“Wait!” he cried, running forward a step. “You didn’t say you’d burn them…” He stumbled to a stop. A palace guard lay ten feet from him, his throat a bloody mess. Phylar stumbled away, vomiting into the hedge, its rough branches pricking his skin.

He turned in spite of himself to look at where Lorgin disappeared. The screams started and he could hear Jonesh among them, demanding to see the leader, demanding… demanding to know what they’d done with Phylar.

Phylar caught his breath on a sob. She didn’t care about him, she couldn’t. She was a spoiled daughter of kings, used to taking boys from their families as Phylar had been taken. He’d been forced to do her bidding, to father three children on her body. He hated her. He turned to run and couldn’t make himself get even as far as the gate.

Lorgin appeared, dragging someone by the hair. With a start, Phylar recognized Jonesh. He threw her, nose bloodied, to land on the stones in a heap. Her head came up and Phylar met her gaze, felt the shock of recognition as she saw him, realized what he was doing, where he stood. The keys felt cold in his hands, a mute accusation.

“Phylar!” she cried.

Lorgin’s hand cracked sharply across her mouth and she fell flat on the stones at his feet, weeping. “Silence! You will speak when told to, Slave, and at no other time!”

Jonesh looked up at Lorgin, her nose streaming blood. She said nothing, but stared at him with hatred and tears in her eyes. Lorgin ignored her and turned to Phylar. He tossed something and Phylar caught it out of reflex.

“Your payment, Boy. Go and spend it wisely.”

Phylar stared at Jonesh, then looked at Lorgin. “What of her?”

Lorgin laughed. “You care nothing for this whore, you said so yourself. You were nothing more than a slave in her bed, a breeding stallion for the King. What does it matter what we do with her?”

Phylar gaped at him, at a loss for what to say.

“Go, Boy.” Lorgin tossed another bag and it landed at Phylar’s feet. “Take an extra payment and find a real whore to sate yourself.”

Several of Lorgin’s men laughed cruelly. One, standing near Phylar, grabbed Phylar’s arm roughly and dragged him toward the postern gate. A second scooped up the bag that Lorgin had tossed and threw it out of the gate. It slammed shut behind them, the locks sliding home with a sound of finality.
Phylar clutched his bags to his chest and stumbled toward the village, trying to shut out the sound of the screams behind him. A great gout of flame sprang up, lighting the trees around him with an eerie glow. Phylar began to run.