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Must contain three things

It’s been a while since I completed something for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge. This one’s late, but I mouthed off about finishing something the previous week, so I figured I needed to do this.

The challenge was to include three things chosen randomly from three lists. I chose an assassin, a magician and a sword.

A fishmonger! Yes, Ned thought. That’s what he could be. He could sell fish, or cheese or be a farmer or, hell, he could muck the byres for yet another farmer. Anything other than what he was doing right now, which was picking his way, more or less silently, up a rocky hill. At the top of this hill was a stone keep, and within this keep lived a magician. That’s what the guy had said, when he hired Ned at the tavern last night, but Ned was pretty sure magician meant wizard, and wizard meant that by sunrise he might be living his life as a sugar glider, or something similarly small, cute, harmless and stompable.

Edges on the rocks tore at his Assassin gloves and poked holes in the soles of his soft leather Assassin boots. His Assassin cape flapped in the stiff wind, occasionally whipping around his face and blinding him. They had been a package deal, along with a menacing Assassin hood and matched Assassin knives, one of which had snapped at the tang the first time he’d thrown it at a tree. Ned had seen them on a merchant cart in the Lion’s Quarter, and they had called out to the coins he had earned mucking byres, as well as to his need for a change of career. It didn’t matter that he had no experience as an assassin, or as anything, really. He had drive, he had confidence, and he considered himself a man who could fulfill a task and keep a secret. He also considered himself a man who would look sharp in Assassin clothes while quaffing ale at the tavern. Thus, when the odd-looking man approached his table at the Randy Hound and offered him a contract to kill a magician with a specific sword Ned had accepted, promising secrecy and discretion.

Now Ned sat on the rocks, not twenty feet from the foot of the tower, and wondered how he could go on. His hands and feet were tender, bloody and exposed. With every step he took, the sword banged on the rocks. He wrapped the cape around himself and considered just going back to town. Working on farms wasn’t all bad, he thought. Perhaps adventure was overrated. But he had taken the job and accepted the sword. If he couldn’t walk how was he supposed to fight a magician? He looked down at the cape he was absently stroking then pulled out his remaining Assassin knife. He took off the cape and cut it into strips, wrapping the soles of his boots and the palms of his hands. He took the sword off its hip belt and slung it over his shoulders so it wouldn’t drag, and he continued up the hill.

Newly invigoured, he arrived at the base within minutes and began looking for an entrance. There wasn’t one, at least not one that he could see. He realized that a keep of this size would have both stables and some sort of drainage, and searched around the edge of the stone broch until he found a culvert, hidden by a bush, with a trickle of dirty water. The culvert was big enough for him to crawl into, but it was tight. He got on his hands and knees and began creeping up the tiled tunnel until it opened into a midden sorely in need of cleaning. He didn’t see or hear anyone in the open centre of the keep, so he ducked into a nearby doorway. He wiped muck off his hands and drew the sword over his shoulders. He crept silently until he came to a flight of stairs, then stepped slowly and carefully up them until at the top he came to a well-lit and cozy room where an old man read in an enormous chair. Ned brought the sword into a high guard, and prepared to strike at the old man when, without looking up from his book, the man made a quick hand gesture and Ned was frozen in place.

“Another one sent to kill me?” he asked, looking up. “Well, at least you’ve made it further than the rest. I’ll relieve you of the sword, then.” His outstretched hand clenched into a fist and the sword tugged itself from Ned’s hand and flew across the room, where he caught it and leaned it against a wall.

“So, why do you want to end my life?” Ned didn’t answer.

“Of course, one moment.” Another hand gesture and Ned had control of his body once more.

“I don’t want to kill you,” he blurted. “I mean, I was hired to kill you, but I don’t even know who you are. I just thought it would be better than shoveling cow shit for the rest of my life.”

“My boy, shoveling cow shit is honest work, and nothing to be ashamed of. Still, I see your point.” He stroked his beard. “What was your name?”

“Ned.”

“Well, Ned, my name is Waldric, Master Waldric to my apprentices. How would you like to become my apprentice?”

“But…” Ned looked around. “But I came here to kill you!”

“Yes, but you didn’t succeed, did you? What you did was to perservere, make creative use of what you had on hand, and find a way in which was difficult and less than pleasant. These things make me think you could handle learning from me.” He picked up the sword and absent-mindedly fingered the designs etched into the sheath.

“You should know, of course, that if you don’t accept I shall have to kill you.” Ned gulped.

“I think being your apprentice would be more of an adventure than being an assassin,” he said. “I accept. Can I sit down now?”

“Not so fast, my young friend,” Waldric said, flicking the sword out of the sheath and directly under Ned’s chin. “This is a sword of judgement, and I have one final question. Who hired you to kill me?” His eyes bored into Ned’s.

“Um…well…it was…” the sword moved a little tighter to Ned’s chin, but he let out a sigh and relaxed onto the blade.

“I can’t tell you,” he said. “So I guess you’ll have to kill me.”

“You can’t tell me? And why not?” At this Ned stood straighter.

“Because I gave my word that I wouldn’t. I may not be any kind of assassin, and honestly, I’m fine with that. It was a really bad choice on my part. But I don’t go back on my word, so please kill me and be done with it.” After a pause, Waldric moved the sword away and resheathed it.

“Correct answer, Ned. Finster chose well.”

“What do you mean chose well?” He patted his neck to make sure it hadn’t been cut as Waldric leaned the sword against a wall and sat down on a bench.

“I grow old, and I have not had an apprentice for some years. I sent Finster to look for someone of character, someone who looked interesting. When he saw you, a stable boy who would be seen publicly in that ridiculous garb, he thought you might be cut from a different cloth than many who pursue my arts.”

“But I know nothing of magic!” Ned protested. “I barely went to school!”

“That is no matter,” Waldric replied. “Given enough instruction a monkey could learn to cast a simple spell. I can teach you the magic. You, however, are tenacious, creative and honourable, and those are qualities which cannot be taught, and are necessary for the responsible use of magic.” Ned beamed.

“So what shall be my first task, Master Waldric?” The magician stroked his beard.

“Well, the byres haven’t been mucked out in a while. Start with that.”

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Lusts: A Delightful Mania

Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge this week was a  Random Title Challenge, wherein you chose from a list of ten randomly generated strings of words and that became your title. I threw in a colon. Hope that doesn’t break any rules.

 

It all started because I was bored Friday night. My friends were off at some festival or visiting family, and I wanted to do something interesting for the weekend. What better way to spend some time alone than to go on a little trip through the doors of perception.

It’s not like I was some kind of hardcore user or anything. I’d sparked up a joint once or twice a year, and I took mushrooms before a Laurie Anderson gig once. That was trippy. The music made colourful squares and triangles in the air, and when I went dancing afterward I felt like my ponytail was pulling me around the dance floor. Anyway, as soon as I figured out that was what I wanted I hopped a bus and went to see Nipper.

“Elwood! Good to see you!” he said, pulling me into his living room. In retrospect his enthusiasm should have warned me off. “You’re just the man I wanted to see. I’ve been working on something I call Sports Day Orange Drink, and its getting rave reviews. I want you to try it.” Nipper was less of a dealer than a skilled chemist who funded new experiments by selling old ones.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s like E, acid and a big hug all mixed together,” he explained. “You’ll be tripping balls in no time.” He reached into his pocket and took out three pills, wrapped them in paper torn from a weekend Get Fuzzy strip and handed me the package.

“Why do you call it Sports Day Orange Drink?” I asked. Nipper grinned.

“Because it’s warm and sweet and when you’re done you line up for more.” I raised an eyebrow and shrugged. That sounded better than being naked under an overpass chowing down on some poor guy’s face, so I’d give it a try. I slipped Nipper a twenty as I shook his hand, and headed out the door.

I’d planned on going home before taking the little tablets, but it was a warm, clear evening, just cooled down enough to be comfortable, and I didn’t have to drive anywhere. I slipped the comic strip envelope out of my pocket (Bucky Katt exclaimed “Sweet monkey dumplings!” at me), fished out a tablet and placed it under my tongue. There was a 7-11 ten minutes away and I figured I’d let this dissolve as I walked up Lakewood, get a Slurpee, then head over to Victoria Park and spend some quality time on the swings. I waited for any effects to manifest, but I was a block away and still felt completely normal.

“What the hell,” I thought, and took the other two tablets. What was the worst that could happen? As I came around the corner and approached the 7-11 I started to feel warm, nay, absolutely suffused with warmth, from head to foot, but significantly warmer in the groinal area. The panhandler sitting by the door asked me for spare change, but I sensed a subtext, that it wasn’t really spare change that he wanted. I went in and started filling a Slurpee cup with Fanta Grape flavour, and the frozen slush poured in, forming luscious, curvy, kissable piles of purple. I shrugged.

“Hashtag YOLO,” I said, aping my 14-year-old cousins, and succumbed to the wiles of the frozen treat machine, flicking my tongue gently around the Fanta Grape tap while my fingers caressed the Red Hot Cinnamon on one side and the Coke on the other. A buzz was building in my head, and I’d almost brought the machine to a messy climax when the 7-11 clerks grabbed me, pulled me close to their polyester chests, and tossed me out on the sidewalk. It was disappointing to come so close and be denied, but I licked the sticky residue from my fingers, brushed off my shorts and looked around. The panhandler had left, so there was no comfort to be had there. My body still held a pleasant, warm haze, like I was wearing velvet y-fronts and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were providing the soundtrack to my evening and I was being licked all over by hundreds of kittens–sexy, sexy kittens.

Hastings Street seemed too bright, so I cut down to quiet, tree-lined Pender Street, thinking I’d follow through on my plan to hit Victoria Park. Maybe I’d find that panhandler and offer him some “spare change” if you know what I mean.

Then, a block away, I saw her.

She was dressed all in red, and it made her beguiling. She was not tall, but was solidly built, with curves right where they should be. She stood on the corner under a streetlight, not moving, but beckoning me forward, and so forward I went. Her name was Candy—Candy Post—and I whispered her name as I stroked her cool skin. I stroked her face and her chin, and then her mouth opened. It opened wide, gaping and inviting me into its depths. I accepted the invitation, dropping my cargo shorts, pulling my Batman Chucks through the leg holes and climbing up her slick skin to deposit my love into her waiting maw. It was going to be glorious, but my foot slipped and that was the end of everything.

You’d think a mailbox would be solidly anchored to the ground, unable to be moved. You would be wrong. As my foot slipped, I grabbed onto her…it…and shifted my other foot. The whole metal box tilted forward, and as I hit the ground it fell onto me, the mail chute slammed shut on my junk, and I dropped out of a high faster than any other time in my life. I crawled out from under the mailbox, grateful that no pedestrians were around to watch, and slunk down the street toward Nipper’s place.

“Dude! You look rough,” he said when I knocked on his door. “That was quick. Are you already back for more?” I sighed.

“No. I just wondered if I could crash on your couch. I’m not sure this is what I was looking for.”

“No worries, chief. Me couch es su couch. Hey, I’ve been working on something else!” He pulled a baggie or brown powder from a pocket. “I call this stuff Hot Dog Day. Want to try it?” I looked at the baggie, then at the couch.

“What the hell,” I said. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

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Moscow Mule

After missing several in a row I thought it was time to kick in to Chuck Wendig’s weekly Flash Fiction challenge again. This past week (I’m posting half a day late) the challenge was to pick, randomly or otherwise, a cocktail from a list, and make that the title of your story. Here’s 1566 words of Moscow Mule.

The old man pushed his way into the bar. A blast of heat followed, the summer dry heat that drove daytime drinkers into places like this—dingy, depressing, but air-conditioned. People near the door flinched, but Anton watched the man and was happy he’d grabbed a table well into the place. He’d grown up in L.A., West Hollywood between Poinsettia and Crescent Heights, but he’d never been good with heat, and this dusty gas station and strip mall outskirt hood of Bakersfield had heat to spare. He sipped the sleeve of Stella in front of him and wondered when his contact would arrive and he could get out of this shit pit and back home.

It was a good two hours drive from his apartment, and he’d have to do the return trip in rush hour, which was a hassle, but one he could withstand. He’d stashed enough cash over the last couple years running numbers and playing messenger boy for Uncle Oleg that he could get out of the business soon, maybe move to Portland or Seattle. It would be good to live somewhere with more trees and less smog. A place where you could go on a date without every baboushka in the neighbourhood knowing about it five minutes later. If Oleg’s toady Sergei wanted him to drive out to the ass end of nowhere and drink skunky beer for an afternoon it was all good. For now.

The geezer had moved to the bar, laid his briefcase on the counter, and started haranguing the bartender like Anton’s uncle and his friends did.

“Żubrówka? You’re using Żubrówka? What do you want me to do? Pour it on ice cream?” He took off his hat and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.

“Look, young man,” he said. “I understand you’re skilled at your job and I wouldn’t want to denigrate your talents, but this is a classic cocktail. This was the toast of L.A. at one time, and you need some specific things to make it properly. Number one, the vodka must be Smirnoff. Number two, you need a nice spicy ginger beer. Not ginger ale, but ginger beer. That bite is essential. Cock ‘n’ Bull is good, and historically appropriate, but I’m not picky. I don’t suppose you have a copper mug on the premises?” The bartender cocked an eyebrow and slowly shook his head.

“I didn’t think so. Doesn’t matter. It’s a hot day. I’ll have two of them.” He watched the mixing process and nodded in appreciation. When the drinks were ready he peeled off a couple bills, tucked the briefcase under his arm and carried both drinks into the depths of the bar, looking for a seat. He settled on the table next to Anton.

“Anyone sitting here?” he asked, setting the glasses down.

“Not right now,” Anton replied. The old man tucked his briefcase onto the floor under the table, then eased himself onto the chair. His suit was a cream linen, well-cared for and perfectly tailored, but thirty years out of style. The hat was a matching snap brim fedora, full-sized, not these little trilbies the frat boy dudebros thought gave them character. He took a long tug off one of the glasses and let the taste wash over him.

“It’s a Moscow Mule,” he said. “Drinks like this were called buck or mule cocktails and everyone was drinking them in the clubs in the forties and fifties. I was a little young for those clubs, then, but I still got in. I guess I imprinted on these. Still drink them, when I drink, which isn’t often. You often hang out in this place, young man?” he asked.

“Not if I can help it. I’m waiting for someone. They should be here by now.” The old man grinned in response, a bright smile that didn’t quite reach his ice blue eyes.

“Isn’t that always the way? We sit in a bar waiting for someone to come along.” He took another drink. “Well, Anton, I’m your someone.” Anton’s eyes narrowed. He drained the Stella and pushed the mug out of the way.

“All right. What do you need me to do?”

“Do, Anton? Nothing. I just want to talk to you.” He extended his hand. “I’m Mickey. We’d probably be neighbours if I’d stayed in the neighourhood.”

“You act like you’re from home, but you don’t dress like it,” Anton said. “But now you mention it I can practically smell the borscht on you.”

“Borscht? In this suit?” Mickey chuckled. “Never.”

“So what do you want to talk about? I can’t tell you anything about business, even if Sergei sent you.”

“Sergei didn’t send me, Oleg did. I don’t need to know about business. I just need to know what happened at the Odessa Grocery last Tuesday night.”

“Ah, shit, I told Oleg what happened. I don’t want to do it again.”
“Try me, sonny boy. Walk me through it.” Anton looked at his empty glass and wished there was some beer left in it.

“Right, so Yakov and I went there to pick up a package for Oleg. The guy was just closing up, so he let us into the back room, but then he said he’d had a rough week and didn’t have the money. He’d done that in the past, but always made good. Anyway, he got mouthy and Yakov shot him, just pulled out his piece and shot him. Problem is, he didn’t know the old man was carrying and as he’s lying on the floor dying he pulls out a little gun and pops Yakov twice in the chest. I was freaking, but I grabbed Yakov’s wallet and anything that could ID him quickly and got the hell out of there.” He rubbed his hands on his jeans, trying not to fidget. Mickey drank some more and crunched what was left of an ice cube.

“Look, Anton. We both know that isn’t how it happened. You got the news to us fast enough that we boosted the cameras before the cops got there. We know what happened, but I need you to tell me the whole thing, why it happened, and remember that I’m not the judge or the jury. Oleg just sent me out to talk to you where our nosy grandmas weren’t eavesdropping. Just give me the deal and I’ll be on my way.” He took a fresh handkerchief from his jacket pocket and handed it to Anton.

“Here. Wipe your face. You’re gonna leave a salt lick on the table you keep sweating like that. Just talk.”

“Right. Okay.” Anton looked around at nothing in particular then lowered his eyes to the table. “It happened pretty much like I said. The guy started getting mouthy, saying he and Oleg went way back and he’d tell him what this little jerk was saying. It really wasn’t much, it’s just the way old guys-“ He looked up at Mickey. “Sorry, it’s just how some old guys talk. Yakov could have threatened him, or trash-talked him or smacked him in the head or something. Instead he just said ‘Who’s a jerk?,’ pulled out his gun and shot the guy. Shot him cold.”

“And what did you do?”

“I shot him. Hand to God I don’t know why I didn’t just punch him in the head and get us both the hell out of there, but I freaked and I put him down. Then I realized what could happen and I wiped the gun and put it in the old guy’s hand and got the hell out of there. I talked to Oleg then I got drunker than I’ve ever been.”

“You felt sorry for the man he shot?”

“I don’t know if I felt sorry, I mean it isn’t like he was treating us with respect, but he didn’t deserve to be shot.” Mickey finished his drink and put his hand on Anton’s shoulder.

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “This shit happens. We get into situations where we’d ordinarily react in a particular way but we can’t. We can’t because we’re professionals, and we don’t react to things like that. We work through it, maybe discuss it with a colleague later, right?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Anton let out a sigh. “Everything’s changed now, isn’t it?”

“No, Anton. The only thing that’s changed is that things are out in the open.”

Mickey slid the second glass across the table to Anton.

“Best drink in the world, son. Everyone should have at least one before they die.” He donned the fedora, pulling the brim down slightly over his right eye.

“Enjoy it.” He stood up and strolled out the door, letting in another blast of heat. Anton looked at the glass full of golden liquid, condensation running down its surface. It sounded like it would taste good, and he’d have to sit around to miss rush hour anyway, so he’d be safe having another drink. He raised it for a taste, then noticed that Mickey had left the briefcase on the floor.

Three blocks away Mickey checked his reflection in a storefront window, popped his sleeves and adjusted his hat. It made him sad to hear about Jake. He was such a good boy. Always had a hug for his Uncle Mickey. He didn’t even flinch when the bomb detonated.

A professional didn’t react to these things.

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Another first line challenge flash fiction.

Here’s my offering for Chuck Wendig’s latest flash fiction challenge. The challenge was to pick a line from last week’s First Line challenge, and write 1,000 words. I chose a line by Bob Pastorella, and worked on it gradually over the week. The first bit came to me quickly, the last was rushed last night. Oh yeah, possibly some triggers for domestic violence. 

 

When those things on Mae’s back turned out to be wings, Frankie got a camcorder from the pawnshop, figuring he’d be a Youtube sensation in less than a week. Mae said she didn’t really want to be all over the internet until Frankie pointed out that Justin Bieber got his start on Youtube, and wasn’t he richer than God now?

They decided to do a short clip, just as a teaser. Maybe, Frankie said, some Hollywood agent would see it and want to hire them. Mae sat primly on the bed wearing cut-off jean shorts and a shy smile, her wings folded discreetly behind her. The only shirts she’d cut down to let the wings through were old sweaters, so they thought they’d make it a little racy, perhaps bring in a few more clicks. She wouldn’t show any nipple, of course. Youtube seemed fine with leathery mutant clawed wings, but show any nipple and they’d lock the whole thing down. So a little modesty it was, with the implied suggestion of her skinny ass.

“Just don’t make me look like a freak, okay,” she said. Frankie fiddled absent-mindedly with the zoom.

“Well, hon, that could be a problem” he said, “Because you kind of are a freak. I mean, you’re still hot, and you’re my freak, but, you know…” Mae pouted, but didn’t respond.

The video was short and simple. Mae sat on the bed with an innocent smile, her arms across her chest. As the camera zoomed out she slowly extended the wings to their full span and her smile widened into a wicked grin. That was the whole thing. Frankie plugged the camera into his ancient PC and Mae’s wings were online in ten minutes. They sat back and waited for the accolades, but all they got, eventually, were vulgar comments, and praise for their Photoshop skills.

“We’ll do another one,” Frankie suggested a few days later. “Make it a little sexier, maybe flap your wings a bit more.”

“Frankie, I don’t want to do any more videos,” Mae protested. “I don’t want people to look at me and think I’m a monster!” Frankie leaned in, looked into her eyes and stroked her left wing. It was warm and soft, like new skin that should be somewhere more private.

“You’ll do it,” he said, “and you’ll do anything else that I say. What else are you going to do? Cut holes in the back of a Walmart vest and be a greeter?” He pinched on the pink membrane. Mae flinched and a talon at the tip of the wing bone flexed and punched into Frankie’s hand. He pulled his hand back and raised it to hit Mae. She cowered, and the wing wrapped protectively around her. Frankie lowered his hand and sucked at the wound, which still bled.

“You’ll do another video,” he said as he walked away. “It’ll be something no one will ever forget.”

 

##

 

Frankie didn’t mention filming for a while after that, and Mae tried to keep to herself. Whenever he tried to get some action she said she had a headache. She didn’t want him to see the changes that were happening to her body, like the sharp little dew claws poking out of her heels, and whatever was happening with her arms. There were other things too, things that made her feel strong and confident, like she’d felt before meeting Frankie. She could see in the dark, and began keeping lights off whenever possible, even at night. She felt awake and alert. Hell, if she didn’t know better she might even think her ass was getting bigger.

“I think we should do some porn,” Frankie said one day. “Did you know they have Youtube for porn? Porntube? Youporn? Something like that. Anyway, we do some crazy gonzo shit, maybe call it a wingjob or something, and we post it there to build an audience. Then we get our own website and charge people for photos and videos. We’ll make a buttload of money.”

“I don’t want to do porn,” Mae said, sitting up on the couch. “I don’t want to do any more videos. I don’t want people looking at me.” Frankie roughly pushed her back down on the couch.

“You’ll do this one,” he said. “If nobody looks at it maybe we won’t do any more, but goddamnit you’ll do this one, and nobody will ever forget it.” She sat back up and thought for a moment.

“All right,” she said. “We’ll do something that nobody will ever forget.”

 

##

 

Once again Mae sat on the bed, her wings folded behind her. She’d wrapped a sheet around herself, but wore no innocent smile this time.

“Christ, at least pretend like you’re having a good time,” Frankie said. He set the camera at the foot of the bed. He looked into the viewscreen, then considered moving it to the side of the bed.

“Just leave the camera there and let’s do this,” Mae said. Frankie pressed the record button then got on the bed. They started kissing, and he pulled Mae’s sheet down, exposing her breasts to the camera. He pulled back from the kiss for a moment, looking bewildered, but Mae drew him back before he noticed the drops of his blood on the white sheets. She unbuttoned his bowling shirt, peeled it off his shoulders and pushed him to the bed.

“Open the wings,” he whispered. “Show the camera the wings.” She held him down and looked into his eyes.

“Oh, I’ll show you the wings,” she said, and they opened with a snap that made Frankie’s Ed Hardy poster flutter on the wall. She saw there was still some blood on his lip from her bite and flicked out a long tongue, its tip forked, to lick up the droplets. Frankie’s eyes widened. A series of flexible spines popped out of each forearm, and she raked angry welts across his chest. He screamed, briefly, until she tore his throat out in two bites. Mae looked into the camera.

“You’ll never forget this, will you?”

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Ponies, or Death Rides a Pale Horse

This week’s flash fiction challenge is “Somethingpunk.” You make up some genre subverting a status quo (in the vein of cyberpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk, but not those ones) or choose from a list, and pump out 1,000 words. This is actually 1,128. I chose “ghostpunk” from the list, and I actually got to finish it this week. 🙂

They said we’d never do it, that no matter what we did the dead wouldn’t come back for a corporeal pony ride. They were dead wrong, as we joked to ourselves. We learned how to draw them from the ether, and the system always worked flawlessly.

Until that one time it didn’t.

##

We started with easy ones. Lindsay strapped the target on her back and wired the crown of thorns over her flame red hair. The mechanism wasn’t really a target, but acted as a focus and entryway into the living subject. The crown of thorns was more of a summoning circle, the thorns actually protrusions designed to increase its surface area. To these she added a heavy overcoat, fingerless gloves and a scarf.

“Not sure how long I can handle this outfit,” she said. “I’m already starting to sweat.”

“Don’t worry,” replied Bernie. “Once he mounts you the temperature will be the last thing on your mind.” Lindsay grinned.

“Once he mounts me? Maybe I should strap the target on a little lower!”

Bernie shushed her. “Don’t get yourself all het up. We need calm for this to work.” Lindsay settled onto the piano bench. Bernie placed the final focus, a plate of scrambled eggs, onto the piano bench next to her. The rest of us backed out of range, Treece tapped the remote to start the recording and Bernie activated the target.

For a solid five minutes the only sound in the room was our breath, and maybe the occasional droplet of sweat falling from Lindsay’s face, then with a sharp intake of breath she stood up straighter and looked around. Her eyes settled on the baby grand piano in front of her and fingers reached for the keys. She started slowly, sometimes curved over the ivories like a hungry buzzard, sometimes swaying her body in a circle in time to the music , Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Her fingers danced nimble patterns on the keys and we could hear her humming along with what she was playing. She was casual and playful, sometimes playing one-handed, but building in frantic intensity until the final crescendo, at which point she lifted one hand to punctuate the end of the piece, stood up and collapsed on the floor.

We were gobsmacked. Lindsay was tone deaf and couldn’t play her way out of a paper bag.

Glenn Gould, on the other hand, could.

##

We all took our turns. Not all that day, as gathering focal props and setting up the scene took most of a morning, but every weekend at least. Playing pony for a ghost was a weird but not uncomfortable feeling. Your rider ran the show, but you never felt trapped, or unable to buck them off if needed. We documented all the rides, improved our technique and gradually our incorporeal visitors stayed for longer periods. One week I borrowed a lute and Thomas Campion made it almost through A Book of Ayres before dismounting. The spirits could sing, but they didn’t seem able to speak through us, so Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t tell us whether he was the lone gunman and Laura Secord couldn’t tell us whether she really had brought a cow on her twenty mile walk. But musicians and dancers from all points in history couldn’t wait to ride the pony and practice their art one more time.

We had our technique and our protocols down to an exact sequence, and we all would be present for each event. That’s how it was until Lindsay, Treece and I showed up at Bernie’s house Saturday morning and found the door ajar and the camera still recording. We searched the house but the only thing we found was—

“Oh shit! What the hell is this?” Treece shouted. “Linz? Tim? Is this a kidney? A human frickin’ kidney?” Lindsay, who’d taken pre-med courses before switching to philosophy, confirmed that it was a fresh human kidney, with a bite out of it.

“Is it Bernie’s?” I asked, but Treece was already plugging the camera into Bernie’s iMac. We watched as Bernie set up a scene, then shaky handheld footage as he zoomed into the focal artifacts: a leather apron, surgical tools laid out on a red cloth, and the kidney, whole and unbitten. Then back to the wide shot as he strapped on the target and donned the crown. He tied the leather apron on, then sat in a straight-backed chair, with the kidney in one hand and the target switch in the other. He sat erect and leaning slightly forward, activated the target, and took a bite of kidney. I puked in my mouth a little. Treece and Linz looked pretty green too.

We could tell when the rider mounted Bernie. He dropped the switch, and his outline on the screen became blurred and staticky. His posture changed, became more closed off. He cocked his head this way and that, looking around while chewing thoughtfully on the bite of kidney. Then he swallowed, picked up the surgical tools, and walked out of frame. I mouthed ohshitohshitohshit under my breath. This was bad. Lindsay had more presence of mind.

“Check the timestamp!” she yelled. I jumped and did so. Bernie and his passenger had left the room minutes before we’d arrived.

“He doesn’t know where he is, or what’s around,” Treece said. “He can’t have gone far. We stick together and comb the neighbourhood and we should find him.” She picked the discarded switch off the floor. “And then we’ll turn him off.”

We ran out the front door and chose a direction randomly. It was a residential neighbourhood, so if they hadn’t gone that way we’d find out quickly. We did find out. Around the next corner was a school, and there, staring through the chainlink fence at a crowded playground, was Bernie the Ripper.

“Bernie!” Lindsay shouted. “You in there?” Bernie turned toward us, looked back at the playing children, then headed toward us, scalpel in hand. Treece tapped the switch and he collapsed like his strings had been cut. I got close enough to kick the scalpel out of reach, and the girls got the crown and the target off him. Bernie woke up and puked kidney across the sidewalk. It was him, with no-one sharing the space.

It turned out he’d wanted to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity. The organ was a beef kidney. Lindsay explained she’d failed gross anatomy. We thought it high time to retire the apparatus, so I took it away to destroy it, leaving restless spirits on their own side of the ether.

Perhaps one day I’ll take it down from its hiding space in the cupboard in my garage.

There’s so much left to explore.

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Danza de los Muertos

The first flash fiction challenge I ever did was a Random Song Title challenge set by Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds. Now, here’s another 1,000 word random song title flash fiction for a new challenge.

I always thought life was boring when I was alive. There were ways to spice it up, of course—music, sex and drugs come to mind—but one of those killed me, so that might say something about my judgment. That was the thing, though. I wasn’t alive, but I was still walking around and seeing what I was missing, and it wasn’t boring. I found out the hard way, by dying on my bathroom floor with a needle in my arm, that chipping a little for old time’s sake was the worst idea ever. By the time anyone noticed the papers stacking up at my door and found me I was already out walking.

I wondered if I was supposed to go somewhere. Heaven? Hell? Purgatory? The Summerlands? The frickin’ Rainbow Bridge? Nobody ever offered me an option, so I walked around the city. For twenty years. Twenty. Fricking. Years. Was I a ghost? I certainly wasn’t able to haunt anybody, rattle chains or make scary sounds. I just walked around every night in the same Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt and red flannel I had on when I died.

I always gravitated back to the East End. I had history there, with school, with bands. I used to sit in my apartment at Hastings and Main and peg biscuits at the people five stories down. The rest of the city, what I could see, was interesting, but the East Side was home. In some neighbourhoods, like Strathcona or Commercial Drive, I saw people I’d known in college or from garage bands. They’d grown up and moved on with life, most of them. They still had the tattoos, but most had traded guitars and student politics for strollers and cargo shorts.

“Look at me!” I thought. “I haven’t changed! I haven’t grown up!” But they never saw me. Nobody ever saw me. I saw a few of those guys tonight as I passed a festival spilling out of Grandview Park. Some carried lanterns, some led around little kids dressed as dinosaurs and skeletons. It looked like a good party, and why wouldn’t a dead guy enjoy the Parade of Lost Souls?

I just wasn’t into it, though, and thought I’d wander down to Trout Lake. If everyone was partying up here I could probably get some quiet down there. There was a little jetty there, not much more than a platform, that extended into the tall reeds at the edge of the lake. Sometimes I would just sit there and look at the stars, wondering what came next. Tonight, though, it looked like there was yet another festival happening. It wasn’t big or crowded, but the park seemed filled with dancers. There were lines of dancers, circles of dancers and musicians of every type winding their way through the trees and trails surrounding the lake. The music of one circle dance drew me towards it, and as I approached a woman broke from the dance and came toward me. She was tall, dressed in a formal ball gown, and wore a wide hat perched over a Bettie Page haircut. Her dark eyes shone out of a face painted to look like a skull, but adorned with bright tropical flower motifs.

“Hello,” she said, taking my hand in both of hers. “You must be Johnny! I’ve been waiting for you!” She seemed excited to meet me.

“How do you know my name,” I asked, “and…geez, you can see me.” It took me that long to realize that this woman could see me and talk to me. I haven’t talked with anyone for twenty years and she just walks up to me.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We heard you’d be coming down. You can call me Catrina. Now come dance with me!” She grabbed my hand and pulled me into the circle.

Snare drums signalled the start of another dance, sticks beat and clicked with the rhythmic precision of a military tattoo. A bass drum was the heartbeat driving us forward. Nasal high-pitched pipes alternated skirling verses, working slowly to a fever pitch.

I didn’t know the dance, but it wasn’t difficult to learn. We spun to the right eight times, did a little hop, then spun back to the left. Then we did that again. Then men spun into the middle, then women, or really anybody who feels like spinning into the middle, and there was some ritual flirtation. I found that if I watched Catrina I picked up the footwork, and the dance flowed through me. She caught me watching her and smiled brightly.

Then the music got slow and somber. We did the same steps, spinning around the circle to first one pipe, then two, then all three droning in morose harmony. Moving that slowly I got a better look at the people around me, and saw that they came from all backgrounds. It was like everyone had a sign around their neck saying ‘This is what I used to be. I am not that now.” Bankers, construction workers, artists and librarians stepped hand in hand to music that swirled through the night. As the music built to its former intensity I saw a hawk-faced man with a grey beard and flowing hair spin a tiny woman, her gentle eyes shining a love that transcended life. A solid-looking bald man with a goatee dipped a reverence toward an intense redhead with paint spatters on her white t-shirt and a rapier at her hip. In the middle of the circle a man in a green plush Cthulhu costume danced to a drummer only he could hear.

The music, and the dance, were back to full speed and I could tell the troupe wouldn’t stay here long. Catrina turned to me and reached out her hand.

“Come with us,” she said, and I could tell that she would brook no argument. I grasped her hand, which felt warm and soft, though I could see both of our hands were simply pearlescent bones, and we danced into the night.

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One-Gilled Girl (with apologies to the Thickets)

Here’s another Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction challenge, 1500 words of Twisted Love. It’s a little disconnected, and leaves a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions, but I guess that’s why it’s flash fiction. It was fun to write anyway.

The first time I saw her she was buying mangoes in the organic section at Donald’s Market. She had picked one up in each hand, and was gently squeezing them to test for ripeness. I reached across the bin to grab one and our eyes locked as we each dandled the ripe fruit. Her eyes were huge, a light blue verging on grey, and her skin was so pale that she probably bought SPF 60 sunscreen in bulk Costco buckets. It worked for her. I’m an outdoors, environmentally conscious kind of guy. I don’t usually go for pale urbanites, but there was something about her that drew me in, and until she grinned shyly and looked away I’m not sure I would have been able to stop looking at her.

I may have fallen in love right there.

I ran into her again outside the WISE Hall late on a Saturday night. I’d been shooting stick and having a few pints with Tim and Phil, but I needed to get outside and be somewhere I couldn’t touch the ceiling with my hand. Even with the separate smoking section it gets pretty close in there, and I couldn’t sink a called shot to save my life anyway. There were a few of us out there, just chatting. You kind of have to keep it down or the neighbours complain. Anyway, I was talking to this dude Keith I used to know back in the day from anarchist stuff, he works on a tugboat now, and she walked up. She didn’t stop, but caught my eye as she pulled open the door. I stopped talking, but my mouth didn’t stop moving, and the door had closed, quieting the bar sounds before buddy poked me in the ribs.

“Who the hell was that?” he asked. “It looked like she cast a spell on you or something.” I shook my head.

“No. Um…I’ve seen her around,” I said. “I just think she’s really hot,” I also said. “I think this is who I’m going to marry,” I didn’t say. I kept that one to myself.

“Do you think maybe you should quit bullshitting with me and go talk to her?” The guy might work on a tugboat, but he apparently had two brain cells to knock together. I nodded and reached for the door handle, but it opened before I could grab it, she came out, and I almost got smacked in the head.

“Oh my gods! I’m so sorry!” She put her hand on my arm. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t even know her, and but I felt like I was back in high school, talking to that girl I liked. All those girls I liked, really.

“I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?” I asked, then snapped my fingers.

“Mangoes, right?” Oh crap. “I mean, you were at Donald’s Market the other day.” I blushed. She laughed.

“Yeah, I guess I was,” she said. She smelled like vanilla. I love women who smell like vanilla.

“That was a pretty quick trip inside,” I said. “Forget your card?”

“No,” she said. “I was just looking for someone, but he isn’t here. Must have left already. What are you guys up to? Having your own little party?” Keith chuckled, then waved and went inside. It was just the two of us.  Just me and this beautiful, vanilla-smelling woman wearing…holy shit, was that a BPRD t-shirt? She likes Hellboy, I thought. I love Hellboy. Wait, I thought. Was I just staring at her tits?

“We were just talking. I was thinking of heading down to Pizza Garden for a couple of slices.” Inside I was shuffling my feet and guffawing but outside I said “Did you want to join me?”

“Sure,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“Oh yeah,” I grinned. “I’m Howard.” She reached out and took my hand. Her hand was cold. Cold hands, warm heart, right?

“Pleased to meet you, Howard,” she said. “I’m Asenath.”

We did get pizza, but then we spent the night walking around the Drive and talking about ourselves and about life. After a few circuits of Grandview Park, we sat spinning on the tire swing holding hands and telling our life stories, or at least as much of them as you tell people you’ve just met. She was new to Vancouver, but had lived up and down the coast all her life. She loved seafood, did something in arts management, and her father had died tragically when she was young. She tried to gloss over that, like it was all in her childhood, but she sounded pretty raw.

It started to rain, so we went to an all night coffee place until the sun rose. We made plans to meet again, then she leaned in, pressed her soft lips to mine quickly, and ran off into the rain.

I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

We’ve spent a few evenings together, casual, not much in the way of fooling around, but I think of nothing else. It’s like she has a hook in my soul. We made plans to meet for tapas at Bierkraft tonight. If things worked well and I felt confident enough I thought I would tell her that I was falling in love with her. I could be misreading her, but I don’t think so. I’m confident dinner won’t end with my heart discarded on the sidewalk.

Either way, this will be a memorable night.

************

The first time he noticed me was a fluke. I had been following him for weeks, and should have paid more attention, but I’d grabbed these mangoes and was imagining I was holding the swarthy balls of Nyarlathotep, and was squeezing the eldritch horrors until they burst. His frenzied screams would echo through four realms and my revenge would be partially complete, but then crap, there he was. I thought I’d sneak past the spelt bread, and out the side door, but then our eyes locked. This wasn’t really a hardship. His eyes were deep green, and worked nicely with his red hair and beard. He was built solidly, in a way that suggested organic bison, lots of local microbrew and weekend hikes up the Lions. I’m a white wine and ceviche kind of girl. I don’t usually go for the grizzled hipsters, but in my weeks of watching him I saw something I’d be able to use.

He would suit my purposes. He would definitely do.

The next time we met I was prepared. I’d checked out his social networking profiles, casually chatted up a couple of former classmates, that kind of thing. He was a comic book geek drawn to women who smelled like cookies, and he spent virtually every Saturday night at this basement bar in a residential neighbourhood. Some eye makeup and a quick visit to Thinkgeek would make this as easy as poking a Shoggoth in the eye.

I strategically timed my entrance to the WISE so that it was just him and one other guy outside. I walked past and squeezed out the tiniest bit of pheromones as I caught his eye and went inside. There was a line-up to sign in, so I didn’t even have to pretend to look for somebody. I just stood there for a few moments, then rushed through the door. I thought I’d bump into him, but he hadn’t even moved so the door whacked him in the shoulder and I was able to get a hand on his arm as I apologized. That was lucky, as my body chemistry works better skin-to-skin than just wafting through the air.

We walked, and I started gaining his trust and interest. I was able to get around the park enough times to create a protective circle so we weren’t bothered, and was able to hold his hand and work my chemical magic on his system. I thought about my plans for him and felt a little bad. He was actually an interesting guy. Under other, drastically changed, circumstances, we might have clicked.

We planned to meet tonight for tapas and Belgian beer. I suspected that, over a glass of fermented balsamic vinegar, he will profess his love for me, and I will return the favour. A girl needs to look good, so I took up my hand mirror and painted my face, making me look once more like something I am not. It wouldn’t have to last long. Once I had his love I would squeeze the sanity out of him like juice and feed him to the Old Ones, but until that time I needed to play my part. Foundation and concealer masked my beautiful green complexion, liquid eyeliner turned me into a Sailor Moon fan’s wet dream, and the look was completed with rockabilly scarlet lipstick. Once finished I realized that I had some lipstick on my teeth, so I popped a slender tentacle out of my v-neck shirt and flicked it off.

This would be a memorable night.

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